Nearly everyone has a playlist of favorite songs they can take with them wherever they go. Tap a button, and those songs that mean something to you flood the air around you. The music probably immediately makes you feel something—happier, more relaxed, even energized.
That’s the power of music—but not just any music. Music that’s personalized to you.
A growing body of research points to personalized music also being a powerful therapeutic tool for those with dementia or Alzheimer’s.
“Music is the only non-pharmaceutical intervention that activates the whole brain,” said Amy Strack, vice president of North America for Music Health, the maker of Vera, an app that creates personalized music stations for dementia patients.
Research proves playlists work
A 2018 study looked at “the impact of an individualized music-based intervention on agitation, negative mood, positive mood, compliance with care, need for one-on-one nursing staff intervention, and need for PRN medication.” The results of the study found that individualized playlists are “an effective way to reduce neuropsychiatric symptoms associated with dementia.”
Music Health’s own study showed a 17% increase in quality of life in care home residents who used the Vera app regularly for two weeks, Strack said.
Another study found that one program that trains care home professionals to create personal playlists for residents helped improve swallowing in residents with dementia, which led to decreased issues with choking and improved nutrition.
Creating personalized playlists
Making a playlist for your loved one might sound like a great idea, especially if it can help improve their quality of life, but it’s not as easy as throwing some songs together on Spotify or Pandora. To reap the benefits of a personalized playlist, it’s important to focus on your loved one’s life during the years when their most enduring music memories are formed— generally between the ages of 15 and 35.
If the person you’re making the playlist for can’t tell you what their favorite songs were, you’ll need to do a little detective work.
“We always say it’s important to start with family members but also understand that those family members may not have been around when Mom or Dad or Grandma were 15 years old,” said Justin Russo, program director for nonprofit Music & Memory, a nonprofit that helps care homes and community facilities launch and sustain a personalized music program for those they serve.
He recommends flipping through their record collection or figuring out what year it would have been when they hit their early teens. Check out the top Billboard hits from those years or the most popular songs on the radio. Aim for a playlist of 15 to 25 songs.
[Figure] out what year it would have been when they hit their early teens. Check out the top Billboard hits from those years.
“This generation was listening to the radio,” Russo said, which means they may like songs that were top hits during their formative years. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that just because they like “Love Me Tender” that they were a big Elvis fan.
You might have to start with a genre-based playlist, but try some different songs to create a truly individualized playlist.
“A genre-based playlist is a great starting point, but it’s not the end goal,” Russo said. “You’re looking for the songs that really light somebody up with those memories.”
Create a playlist for your loved one at home
If you don’t have the time or music knowledge to create a playlist from scratch, there’s an app for that.
The Vera app launched in June on the Apple platform with an Android version coming in August. The artificial intelligence-powered tool can create three separate playlists with just a few taps. You enter some information about the listener, including their birthdate, gender, country of birth, their first language and where they lived between the ages of 14 and 35. The app asks for favorite genres of music and favorite artists or songs, then builds personalized music stations.
“It curates three different listening stations,” Strack said. “Relax, Energize and Reminisce. The stations are very intentional. Reminisce is curated with songs that we know were likely songs that were topping Billboard charts (or record sales if it was during a time that predated music charts).”
This music station includes “hero tracks,” songs your loved one will connect with right away and that can help with anxiety and agitation that can lead to combative behavior.
“Energize and Relax are more about getting someone into that desired mental state,” she said. “It’s something that’s going to help get them in a good mood and give a boost for the day or relax the mind and body.”
Once the playlists are generated, they’re not static. Care partners can make notes in the app about memories the songs trigger or how they notice their loved one reacting to the song. Simple love, star and dislike buttons allow you to keep or delete songs.
The Vera app costs $89.99 for a yearlong subscription.
Care homes can benefit, too
If your loved one lives in a residential care home, you can create a playlist for them or talk with staff about creating an individualized playlist program for the entire facility.
“We teach the provision of personalized music for therapeutic outcomes,” Russo said. “What we’ve learned is that favorite music can reawaken the brain and really allow someone to activate their cognition. It allows them to be more present, to converse, to socialize.”
Music & Memory provides training and support to care facilities by building a strong, interdisciplinary team at the facility. This allows the program to be built to scale up from the start. The group teaches several options for creating an individualized music playlist, including using the Vera app. Music & Memory currently has 5,800 certified locations throughout the country, and 29 states have made the program part of their elder care policy.
Even so, Russo knows they’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg, so check with your loved one’s care home to see if they have a Music & Memory program. If not, you can advocate for them to start one by downloading the guide on Music & Memory’s website.
Individualized playlists don’t just benefit your loved one
While individualized playlists provide great benefits for your loved one, they can also benefit the caregiver.
“Vera is designed for the care partner to empower them and improve quality of life for both the person(s) living with dementia who they care for and themselves by de-stressing the difficult moments of care,” said Nicc Johnson, co-founder and CEO of Music Health.
Johnson recommends using Vera’s personalized music stations before and during the activities of daily living like showering, eating, doing rehab therapy, or going on an outing.
Russo agreed: “We teach the proactive use of a personalized music playlist. You want to activate cognition. It creates this carryover effect that can last for upwards of 30 to 45 minutes. They’re more likely to remember family members and get through difficult transitions.”
Maybe the best benefits of using a personalized playlist are the intangible ones. Having music as a focus when loved ones visit gives everyone the opportunity to interact over a shared interest.
“A lot of the families whose parents are in care homes that are using Vera, as they’re visiting, they’ll play the music, and it’s something else to connect with and socialize about,” Strack said.