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Playlist for Life

Sarah Metcalfe, CEO Playlist for Life

I hope my role doesn’t exist in 10 years. Everyone at Playlist for Life feels the same about their job. The day we no longer have jobs, will be the ultimate marker of our success.

Music is neurologically special which means it is uniquely powerful for people living with conditions like dementia. We want the connection between music and dementia to be as automatic as that between sticking plasters over cuts. When that becomes common knowledge, Playlist for Life’s mission will be complete.

We were established with a clear goal: to ensure every person with dementia has access to a unique personal playlist of tunes that are attached to their memories and emotions. And that everyone who loves or cares for them knows how to use it to connect, communicate and manage dementia symptoms.

We were founded by writer and broadcaster Sally Magnusson after the death of her mother Mamie, who had dementia. While caring for Mamie, the Magnussons discovered almost by accident how the music that had been part of Mamie’s life became the best way of keeping in touch with her, restoring a sense of order to the increasingly strange and often distressing world Mamie was inhabiting.

I Like Coffee, I Like Tea by The Ink Spots, Irving Berlin’s It’s a Lovely Day TomorrowHow Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria from The Sound of Music and the perennial Scottish favourite, Ye Cannae Shove Yer Granny Aff A Bus, were all just some of the songs the family would play, or sing, to Mamie. They helped calm her in moments of distress and confusion, and revealed common ground for Mamie and her loved ones to meet on, sharing meaningful connections despite the progress of the illness.

After Mamie’s death, while researching her best-selling memoir ‘Where Memories Go’, Sally discovered her mother’s response was no accident but backed up by decades of scientific research. Why, then, had the Magnusson’s not been told of the power of music? Why were hundreds of thousands of other families still not being told? Sally founded Playlist for Life to change that and to share with other families the small piece of knowledge that can be literally life-changing: personal music helps dementia.

In the last six years Playlist for Life has grown fast – a sign of the growing scale of dementia and the desperate need our health and care systems have for new, creative and cost effective ways of supporting people living with the condition.

Playlist for Life teaches families, health professionals and care staff how to use the power of listening to music to understand and ‘see’ the whole person with dementia. We teach ‘Music Detective’ skills – how to track down clues by exploring someone’s life story even when a person can no longer communicate. Creating a playlist in this way promotes understanding and can revolutionise how person-centred health and care is delivered.

Listening to a personal playlist with a loved one can stop the feeling of helplessness and bring joy. In the words of Margaret, wife of Harry, the very first couple we made a playlist with in 2013, ‘Being a carer is hard, but those last months listening to his music together let me fall in love with Harry again.’

Care homes we train consistently report reductions in the use of medication for dementia patients, by trying playlists first as a way to distract someone and manage feelings of distress. GPs at Pacific Care’s Lilyburn Care Home in Glasgow have been so impressed they now formally prescribe playlists. In Accident and Emergency at Kirkcaldy Hospital in Fife, playlists are used as a first alternative to medication for patients experiencing distress, with 96 per cent success. Speech therapists are using playlists as a way to support language maintenance.

Playlists are tiny things in themselves, but they have the potential to be catalysts for wider change. As well as training for health and care professionals, Playlist for Life is working to reach the two thirds of people with dementia who live at home by spreading knowledge and Music Detective skills through word of mouth and a growing grassroots network of community Help Points.

Help Points are hosted by existing organisations, like churches, libraries, carers centres. Playlist for Life provides free resources and training for volunteers so that host organisations can raise awareness locally and provide a helping hand to anyone who gets stuck finding the right tunes or using the technology. More and more, Help Points also start to incorporate music into their existing services. Rev Helen Jamieson, leader of the first Help Point at St Andrews Church in Carluke, Lanarkshire, says ‘Playlist for Life has changed my ministry’.

Playlist for Life currently has 357 Help Points around the country and in July this year received a huge vote of confidence from The National Lottery Community Fund, who awarded us £1.6million over three years, half the funds required to take playlists to scale across the UK and grow the Help Point network to 1,500 by October 2022.

And we have hit the ground running. On BBC Music Day in September we advised the BBC Archive Team on improvements to their playlisting tool BBC Music Memories. We distributed 180 Musical Tea packs so that organisations all over the country could celebrate the power of music to help dementia. We also launched a new Music Detective resource for grandchildren, to help spark conversation with older relatives and make a playlist.

Our message is spreading, and the importance of having a Playlist for Life is something more and more people can vouch for. And our job is to spread that message further until everyone knows that music helps dementia.

If you would like to get involved, by setting up a Help Point or being trained or by creating a playlist for yourself or someone else, then please get in touch. Together, we can change lives.




Edel Harris





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