The beat goes on by Julie Garton

Music has the power to help improve quality of life for people living with dementia and their families. It can bring back memories, open up conversation, improve mood, restore calm and strengthen the person’s sense of self and relationships
There are around 90, 000 people living with dementia in Scotland and we have a responsibility to find and employ strategies and interventions that help people to live well with dementia
A key part of my role is to encourage and support the use of strategies and interventions that can increase wellbeing for people with dementia. Dementia is characterised by progressive and irreversible memory loss, and often verbal communication and thought processes deteriorate to such an extent that it interferes with daily life and activities.
The charity, Playlist for Life, aims to spread the word about the benefits of music and to help families and carers build playlists of personally meaningful music for their loved one. Founded in June 2013 by journalist and broadcaster Sally Magnuson, after she saw the impact that music had on her mother who had dementia.
Sally researched the neurological effect familiar music had on the brain, and found a growing body of evidence to support the use of personal music for people with dementia, and an American organisation, Music and Memories, who had discovered the most amazing results after introducing personalised music on iPods for people with dementia.
So, while it was obvious that ‘live ‘music could bring bouts of joy and sudden flashes of memory to people, the effect on individuals was transient. But playlists on an iPod, this was personal. This could go through life with you.
Please check out the website for more details, but already, people have been reconnected to their loved ones and that elusive thing, their ‘ selves’ through sharing their music from their past on an iPod.
Music is the first and last channel of communication. Our auditory system is the first to fully function, even at 16 weeks in the womb we can hear and respond to music. It’s recognised that babies as young as 5 months can distinguish between happy and sad songs.
This forms a soundtrack to our lives. We can remember words and tunes to music and songs that we may not have heard for a very long time, but often the first few notes are enough to prompt a flood of memories, emotions and/or bad dancing in the kitchen.
In dementia, musical communication remains strong while often other forms of communication fade. Music can help those living with dementia connect with their past and their present. The brain structures involved in processing musical information often remains intact

The Benefits of music in dementia
Speeds healing – early healers used incantation and the Egyptians used music to treat a range of disorders
Increase optimism
Decrease pain
Reduce isolation
Reduce stress and distress
Promote active engagement & communication
Increase affection, creativity and expression
Reduce anxiety and depression
Increases co-ordination of motor movement, especially if combined with dancing

There is growing evidence that listening to music can stimulate seemingly lost memories and may even help restore some cognitive function. Not to mention, music engages the areas of the brain involved with paying attention, making predictions and updating events into the memory. Research suggests that even as dementia progresses, the brain has the ability to make neural connections which allow the person to reconnect with memories and emotions and expression. This provides an opportunity for families to share experiences and maintain a relationship with their loved ones, and can make visits easier and more meaningful.

This is simple, easy and cheap. Where we can use personalised music, why wouldn’t we? When it’s effective, there’s not a dry eye in the house. I’m not sure if the days of forced communal listening to Daniel O’Donnell /Val Doonican/Scottish Country Dancing music and the like are over- I am emotionally scarred by years of Jimmy Shand and his band, (apologies to fans of the above) played relentlessly in older people s wards over the course of my career, but iPods are the way to go folks! Other Mp3 players are available.
Working in dementia care is fascinating, motivating and can give those working in the field a huge sense of satisfaction, but we have a long way to go before we have really got to grips with how to prevent stress, manage distress and ensure people are receiving consistently high quality, person centred care. Using personalised music is just one small way to work towards those goals, but a good one.
We had a training day in June for 15 members of staff from across the region. Staff from community hospitals, Midpark Hospital, community hospitals and palliative care attended and the impact of the training was tangible.
Staff will work with families to create personalised playlists for their loved ones. Favourite songs of course (and make sure the artist is the identified, we all have a favourite tune that’s been ‘covered/ruined’ (delete as appropriate) ), but other favourite music such as, nursery rhymes, TV theme tunes, Christmas songs can all help build the music to that persons’ life .
It also allows staff to deepen their knowledge of the person, allowing developed and enhanced relationships between staff and families and helps promote the use of This is Me as yet another tool to really get to know the person we are caring for.
My gratitude to League of Friends for their generous donation to buy a number of starter kits (iPods/earphones/splitter cables) and also to the IT department who have been hugely supportive, overcoming the technical challenges (and technophobes!) Thanks also to the Mental Health, Psychology and Learning Disability Directorate for enabling the training.
‘It took a lost weekend in a hotel in Amsterdam ……..One of my top three tunes of all time, but the memory behind it is mine and not for sharing!
So, what’s on your playlist?


Julie Garton is an Alzheimer Scotland Dementia Nurse Consultant for NHS Dumfries and Galloway

5 thoughts on “The beat goes on by Julie Garton

  1. Julie, you made me smile (Jimmy Shand), learn and admire with this blog. Hope it is full steam ahead for this fantastic development.

  2. Great blog Julie, music has such an ability to transport all of us to a sepcific place and time and the power of it is clear…as for Amsterdam, Linda obviously doen’t have that song in her top 10! Maybe we should all share one of our favourite songs or lines…no dark sarcasm in the classroom…(showing my age there!)


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