If he ever had to move into a nursing home, Dan Cohen says he'd like to take some of his favorite music with him for comfort. The collection would be an eclectic '60s mix: some Beach Boys, Beatles and Joni Mitchell, plus a few Broadway tunes, folk ballads and R&B hits.
For Cohen, a social worker specializing in applying technology to vocational rehabilitation and community service organizing, recognizing that personal connection to music inspired the creation of a groundbreaking program in eldercare. In 2010, Cohen founded Music & Memory™, a national nonprofit that trains caregivers to help people with cognitive and physical disabilities reconnect with themselves and the world around them through music.
Eldercare facilities have used music for therapy for decades, but Cohen's idea of using digital audio systems to make personal playlists for each resident was something new. He started with a proposal for what would become the pilot for Music & Memory™.
“I called up a nearby facility—I live in New York—and I said, 'I know music is already your number one recreational activity, but can we see if there is any added value if we were to personalize the music totally for someone?'" Cohen recalls. “They said, 'Sure, come in,' and I did it with my laptop and three iPods."
The calming, mood-lifting effect of the listening sessions made Cohen's experiment an instant hit. Experts like University of Kansas professor Alicia Ann Clair and opera singer turned neuroscientist Linda Maguire have noted that one reason music therapy is so effective with Alzheimer's patients is that the part of the brain that enables people to sing and respond to rhythmic cues remains healthy. Cohen says the impact of using customized music selections in the therapy is more powerful than having an entire group listen to the same music.
“By personalizing the music, every song is a song that resonates, and that's what makes all the difference," he says.
A video clip from the award-winning 2012 documentary about Music & Memory™ went viral, garnering nearly two million views to date. It shows a previously depressed and unresponsive nursing home resident named Henry come alive as he listens to and sings along with some of his favorite Cab Calloway songs.
When working with people who have Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia, figuring out their musical preferences can be a challenge.
“If they can't tell us, then we'll work with their family and friends," Cohen says. “We have different ways to try to dig up that information, and sometimes that's the hardest part."
A 2014 study by the Alzheimer Society of Toronto found that personalized music therapy for patients also helped to reduce caregivers' stress by keeping their loved ones safely engaged for a while.
“If the person with dementia has their music, and you know they're going to sit for the next hour enjoying the music, you can go have a cup of coffee in the next room, talk with a friend," Cohen says. “You can relax. You don't have to worry about somebody walking out the door or turning on the stove."
If you'd like to create a personal playlist for your family member, you can request a free, downloadable caregiver's guide from the Music & Memory™ website.