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ehospice speaks to…Playlist for Life co-founder Andy Lowndes

Author: Leila Hawkins
06 April 2018

Andy Lowndes is co-founder and trustee of Playlist for Life, a charity that provides an innovative service: curating selections of music for people with dementia. He tells ehospice about the power music has to evoke positive memories and strengthen relationships with loved ones.

As co-founder and a Music Detective at Playlist for Life, what does your role involve?

I helped develop a number of different techniques to identify playlists, particularly for people in later stages of dementia, who perhaps are not able to tell you accurately what songs and music they like to listen to. The detective skills are being nosey and asking questions, not always asking the person with dementia as asking too many direct questions can be quite upsetting if they do not know the answers, so we use the family, the friends of the person, anybody who knew them in their younger years when they may have gone dancing together, or gone to each other's weddings.

There is training around music detective skills so people do not just start off with a blank page. On our Spotify account we have the top 100 songs from the last hundred years, and there is a thing called the memory bump that psychologists understand as being a time of your life when you lay down more memories than at any other time, between the ages of 10 and 30. If I know what year you were born I know what year you were between those ages, so I can look at the top 100 songs from each year. That is a long list of possibilities rather than an empty page, and we can start from there and see how people respond to the music.

But that is very often in the later stages of dementia. Ideally we want everybody to become their own music detectives and build their playlists now because one in four of the population will develop dementia, and one in three babies born today will die with dementia.

When Playlist for Life was founded, was the initial aim to restore memories?

It was actually about keeping people connected to each other, a way to keep couples and families connected. Many of the songs on my playlist are actually ones that were on my parents' playlists, that they exposed me to when I was younger, so it has memories from me listening to them when they were around. But what we did discover, and this was really the kick-off for the charity, was when [broadcaster and chair] Sally Magnusson's mother had dementia and they found that music helped her to stay connected to herself. If you imagine losing the ability to know who you are, where you are, and what you are, that can be disturbing, but if you can give somebody back some sense that helps them to go "oh yeah, I recognise that, that was the song we used to sing," that must be really comforting.

It improves things like mood and lots of other spin-offs that we did not expect to happen. Because people were less distressed, particularly in the later stages, they had a better nutritional outcome because they were able to sit and eat a meal, whereas before they were too upset to do that. Things like incontinence, for the same reason, less distress to get up and go to the toilet or ask somebody to take them. We saw less falls reported to us from places we worked with, for the same reason, people able to sit back and relax rather than get up and wander around all the time and then end up falling. They are really amazing things that surprised us, but actually now seem to be quite sensible.

But certainly the original idea was to help people connect again. There is a video on our website of Harry and Margaret O'Donnell, and Margaret felt disconnected from her husband who had gone into a care home. When he was at home she was no longer just his wife, she was his carer and that changed the dynamic of their relationship. Then when he went into the care home she was his visitor, and she described that as his dementia progressed she would say "hello, how are you today darling?" and nothing was coming back from him. But when she got his music she had something to do when she went to visit him, they would sit and listen together, he began to sing to her and they were connected again. She actually said to us that getting his music back helped her to fall in love with him again.

When you spoke at Hospice UK's National Conference last year you talked about a man who regained his mobility while listening to music. How can it have such a powerful effect, and what is the science behind it?

There is a bit of feeling less distressed and less worried about falling over, but there is also the fact that music affects so many different parts of the brain, it helps neuroconnections to reconnect and be used. Dementia is about the death of brain cells but those neuroconnections need to be activated and music seems to activate them better than anything else and for a lot longer. 

That is why they say that our ability to respond to music is one thing that dementia cannot destroy, because we see people towards the end of their life with dementia still being able to respond to it, and wanting to tap their hands and feet and smile, and almost get up and dance again. We say when you see somebody listening to their personal music while they are in a brain scanner it is like a fireworks display going off, as all of those neuroconnections begin to talk to each other again.  We suspect some of that is what is happening with the mobility side of things as well. There needs to be more research into it and we are working with some partners now in the academic world.

What is the most surprising reaction you have seen?

Oh gosh, I have never ceased to be surprised. It is not always the dramatic things like with Harry beginning to sing, it may just simply be the families being able to be closer together. One family I worked with, the gentleman had been taken into care because he was no longer accepting of personal contact so his wife could not help him any longer. His wife and I built a playlist and one of the songs that was on it was from their wedding. It was Phyllis Nelson’s Move Closer, and as he was listening to that she was able to sit down next to him for the first time in quite some time, and he reached out and held her hand. That was beautiful to see. She said "I know he is still in there, because of the way he reacted to that song." That is one of these dramatic changes, but just to see somebody settle back into their chair and seem more relaxed is huge as well.

On a personal note, what are you most satisfied of having achieved with the charity?

This is the best thing I have ever done, that is the way I describe it. I retired as a nurse so I could do this as a volunteer.  To be able to go out and hopefully in some way influence practice to move on to what I think is the most person-centred intervention I have ever been involved in has been fantastic, and it gives me great satisfaction every time I get a chance to speak about it.

For more information visit Playlist for Life

Follow Andy on Twitter

See more articles in People and places

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