Back in 2006, social worker Dan Cohen was listening to the radio when commentators mentioned the ubiquity of the iPod – the most common digital music device, and the most common way that folks were listening to their favorite music those days. It wouldn’t have seemed like news to most people, but it got Cohen thinking. Sure, the younger generation had embraced these devices, but what about older people?
When his Google search for “iPods and nursing homes” came up empty, Cohen started wondering: What if you could unite America’s 60 thousand nursing homes, assisted living facilities, hospice care and hospitals with this type of technology?
Two weeks later, armed with his iPod and laptop, Cohen headed to a Long Island nursing home, eager to find out how residents might react to having their own personal iPods. He asked a female resident who, although lucid, was inclined to keep to herself, about her favorite artists and downloaded some of their songs – Aretha Franklin, Celine Dion and Barry Manilow. “She was thrilled. The music brought back joyful memories of her youth,” Cohen said.
Another resident, in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s, loved gospel music according to his daughter. Within minutes after Cohen hooked him up, the resident stood up, started waving his arms and sang along. “This resident had been immobile and unable to speak. Cohen said. “I knew I was on to something.”
Music & Memory: An Experiment with Technology
That something became Music & Memory, Cohen’s nonprofit organization that brings personalized music into the lives of the elderly and infirm through digital music technology.
Music & Memory works with nursing home staff, family and friends to compile playlists of favorite songs for selected residents.
“Individuals with dementia, Alzheimer’s and other conditions that leave them isolated and lonely are more likely to remember only songs from their youth,” Cohen says. “So the music has to be highly personalized to be of any therapeutic value.” Once Cohen downloads the top 100 favorites for each resident, the magic of music begins.
Music & Memory is now in 184 locations in 30 states and eight countries. The state of Wisconsin has secured federal funding to set up 100 nursing homes as Music & Memory certified, involving 1,500 residents with dementia. In Toronto, the Alzheimer’s chapter is rolling out 10,000 iPods to city residents diagnosed with the disease.
And after a long period in production, a documentary about Cohen’s work, crowdfunded in part through a Kickstarter campaign in which 650 backers pledged amounts ranging from $1 to $10,000, is finally screening in select venues. “Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory,” which features renowned neurologist and author Dr. Oliver Sacks and other luminaries, was officially released last month.
Alive Inside: The Film
“Alive Inside” director Michael Rossato-Bennett met Dan through a mutual friend and agreed to make a short video to help get Cohen’s message across; the success of Music & Memory depends in part on spreading awareness to spur donations of new and used iPods.
Rossato-Bennett was blown away, and the short video turned into a full-length documentary.
“It was such a simple idea, but no one had ever done it before,” Rossato-Bennett says. “No one had ever thought of personalizing music for these elders – giving them the music that had defined them and giving it to them intimately and personally, not in a group setting but in their ears, the way it had come into them in the first place, in a way they could easily embrace it all over again when they needed it most.”
Rossato-Bennett says working on the film changed his view not just of Alzheinmer’s, but of aging, too. “I learned so much about music and life from these elders. Seeing the way they experienced music made me change the very way I listen to music, it changed my views on aging and our own existence. I now see us as something different, as musical, vibrating beings.”
Got an iPod?
As Dan’s program expands, he asks that people donate gently used iPods. Volunteers are greatly needed as well. “It’s a great community project for schools, community organizations or individuals,” Cohen says.
In addition, “Alive Inside” director Rossato-Bennett says they are developing an app that will let kids help their elders find their music. “The reason we don’t respect our elders is because we don’t have to,” he says. “We hold productivity in such high regard that anything that’s not productive is considered useless and a drag on the world. It’s sad, because we turn our back on these people. We want to turn some love and attention back toward them.”
For more information on services, donating gently used iPods, and how to become involved visit Music & Memory.
Click here for more information about “Alive Inside.”
Thank you so much for your comments, Kat and Naturedar. This is such an important story.
Oh, my gosh, this article and the videos are superb! I know if I was in a nursing home and was bored, how much I’d appreciate “my” music, and music in general. I agree, it should be distributed! Great job, Vonnie!
Wow! This film needs to be distributed everywhere. So powerful and moving. I, too, am a filmmaker. I had the chance to film an elder band. A husband and wife participated. She had Alzheimers. When she played her instrument ( a french horn!) she came alive too. When we write up our end of life wishes we all should be indicating our favorite music so our loved ones can expose us to it in case we lose touch with life. Thank you, thank you, thank you!