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Make a playlist for someone with dementia: the results will astonish you

Music is neurologically special: we’re only just scratching the surface of what it can do for dementia sufferers – and for their carers and families

In October BBC Radio 3 will broadcast a six-hour programme blending music with the voices of people living with dementia, in a collaboration with the Wellcome Collection. It promises to be a moving demonstration of something we all need to know: that music can be a powerful tool for people with dementia.

Music is neurologically special. If your brain were to be scanned while you listened to your favourite music, the screen would light up like a fireworks display. Not just the auditory cortex, but areas involved in emotion and memory, language and decision-making, movement and reactions.

Even if dementia erodes one part of your brain, music can still reach those other parts to tap into emotions, memories and even abilities thought lost.

The results can be astonishing – and profoundly moving. People who cannot speak can sing. People who struggle to walk can dance. People who have withdrawn into themselves take an interest in others again.

These effects explain the growing number of musical activities for people with dementia. Formal music therapy is wonderful but out of reach to many. The Alzheimer’s Society runs Singing for the Brain groups. There are fabulous outreach programmes by arts companies such as Opera Holland Park and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, bringing live music into care homes.

Through music, these schemes bring people with dementia out of themselves to connect with others. But they rely on specialist expertise or a group setting that cannot be available when someone is having difficulty dressing, or lying on a trolley in A&E, or despairing at night.

There is a growing movement to democratise the power of music, including teaching families and care staff how to use something we all possess – the soundtrack to our own lives.

We all know that flashback feeling when a song comes on the radio and takes you back to another time, person or place. That is personally meaningful music – and research shows it has the most powerful effect.

At Playlist for Life, we teach skills to help family members and care staff find the right music for someone with dementia, and how to harness its effects. Playlist for Life has partnered with The Centre for Dementia Prevention at the University of Edinburgh to help further the research.

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