Music and Memory Awakens Patients Who are “Alive Inside”

Reconnecting People with Dementia to Their Younger Years Through Music

Here at SelectCare Home Care Services of NY, it’s our goal to help families care for their older loved ones. In our 31 years of experience, we have learned that some of our most important casework involves helping families cope with the challenges of dementia and its related symptoms.

That’s why this month’s meeting of the Lower East Side Inter Agency Council (LESIAC), featuring Music and Memory founder Dan Cohen, MSW, was such an exciting event. Cohen has spent the past decade reconnecting people with dementia to their younger years through music, and the results are incredible.

Cohen, who spent much of his working life combining social work with technological solutions in the private and public sector, said he was inspired to found Music and Memory in 2006 after reading about the growing popularity of iPods and similar MP3 devices. He knew that many nursing home and assisted living facilities struggled to engage patients experiencing dementia and wondered if this new tech trend to help people reconnect with their past.

Cohen estimates that a person experiencing dementia spends about 90 percent of their free time idle in most nursing homes and assisted living facilities, but by introducing patients to personalized playlists, his team can help encourage these patients to engage with the world around them.

The challenge, Cohen said, is finding the music that actually has meaning for each individual he helps.

“If you’re working at a nursing home, you ask yourself ‘what should we play?’” Cohen said “You play big band, you play Frank Sinatra, you loop those same 50 songs and it becomes background noise, it’s one more audio stream, one more distraction.”

The results of these custom playlists is hard to deny – in the video above, you’ll notice the patient, Henry, not only has a near perfect recollection of his favorite Cab Calloway song, but even times Calloway’s signature “ow!” perfectly.

Cohen said that although the results of this program are not uniformly successful (in part, he says, because it is difficult to build a playlist for nonverbal patients), the majority of people exposed to their favorite tunes are less anxious, more animated and have an easier time communicating with family and staff. He says this is in part because listening to music engages the same parts of our brain that we use to converse.

As an added bonus, he said that patients calmed by music tend to be friendlier towards facility staff and are less likely to be prescribed antipsychotic medications – medications that, while effective, are currently prescribed to 18 percent of all nursing home patients and can have serious impacts on a their health.

Music and Memory offers training and support to nursing homes and assisted living facilities throughout the US and Canada, showing staff members how to identify a patient’s favorite music, build personalized playlists, integrate music into day-to-day activities, and track the progress of the program.

Cohen tried this program first in a 600-bed nursing home in Long Island, where it was considered a “definite hit”. Since then, an increasing number of facilities are calling on Music and Memory for help. A recent 1,500-patient test run was performed in Wisconsin through their department of health, but was doubled by the WI health commissioner before the trial was completed. On top of improving the quality of life for patients, their improved moods have raised caregiver morale and drastically lowered caregiver turnover across the state.

The Music and Memory model has been replicated in 15 states across the country, while another 10 are in the process of evaluating the program. Locally, Saint Barnabas Hospital’s hospice department has purchased 80 iPods for use within their department.

“[With music] they’re not just bringing comfort,” Cohen said. “They’re bringing joy.”

Cohen and his Music and Memory program was the subject of a 2014 documentary “Alive Inside”, which has won several prominent awards, including the Best Documentary audience award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. The documentary is currently available on Netflix and other streaming services.

SelectCare is always happy to discover and promote new ways of helping our loved ones, no matter what challenges they face. If you or your family would like to learn more about how our staff of home health care experts can make a difference in your life, call us today.