The philosophy behind Music & Memory, a nonprofit that facilitates personalized playlists for elderly residents in more than 3,000 assisted living facilities worldwide, is pretty universal.
“We all know when we’re listening to music that we love, we’re in a better mood,” says Dan Cohen, who founded the program in 2010. “And so, it’s taking that concept and applying it to people who have lost the ability — have lost access to their music."
While the program has improved the mood and well-being of many elderly residents, it has proven life-changing for patients suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s. A viral clip from “Alive Inside," a documentary about Music & Memory that won the 2014 Sundance Audience Award, shows how Henry, an elderly patient with dementia who had been rendered all but mute, completely transforms when he listens to his favorite songs.
We spoke with Cohen, whose background is in social work, about the benefits of the program and why everyone should have their own playlist.
What motivated you to found Music & Memory?
In 2006, I was listening to a journalist on the radio talking about how everybody’s got iPods, and I thought, well, that’s not really totally true. Young people all might have them, and a lot of us adults, but in any kind of nursing home or health care facility, that did not seem accurate. So I googled “iPods and nursing homes.” In the US, there’s 16,000 nursing homes and I couldn’t find one that’s giving their people music on an iPod.
I live on Long Island. I called up a nearby nursing home, A. Holly Patterson, and said, "I know music is already your No. 1 recreational activity, but can we see if there’s any added value if we were to totally personalize the music?" They said sure. I came in with my laptop and three iPods, and it was just an instant hit among the residents of that home.
How are the playlists created for the patients?
If someone said they loved Frank Sinatra, I would not just give them a hundred Frank Sinatra songs — it might just be “New York, New York” they love. I’d find out which they really love, and then over time hone the list, take off stuff that’s just so-so. So after two or three months, every song would be songs that really resonated with them.
Every [participating] nursing home has an iTunes library and they generate the playlists for each person through that. We don’t use streaming services because they require a more expensive internet-enabled device. And not a lot of nursing homes have wifi, believe it or not.