In 2014, a documentary called Alive Inside premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and picked up the audience award for best documentary. The film explores the idea that music can help reawaken memories and emotions in dementia patients and features the work of social worker Dan Cohen, MSW, whose nonprofit organization Music & Memory has improved the quality of life of thousands of patients through a very simple approach: giving them an iPod. Medscape recently spoke with Cohen about his rapidly growing initiative and about the therapeutic potential of personalized music in patients suffering from dementia.
Medscape: What is the mission of Music & Memory?
Mr Cohen: Music & Memory, Inc. is a nonprofit organization that promotes the use of personalized music to improve the quality of life of elders or anyone who has a cognitive or physical issue.
Medscape: What inspired you to start this nonprofit?
Mr Cohen: I’m a social worker but also have a long career with technology companies. In 2006 on the radio, I heard a journalist talk about how iPods were ubiquitous, and I thought, well, most young people have them, and many older adults do too. However, in a nursing home, it just didn’t seem likely that people had these devices that the rest of us had. I Googled “iPods in nursing homes,” and among 16,000 nursing homes, I could not find one that was using them. I called up a local facility and asked if we could try something. I knew the residents already had music, but I wanted to see if there was any added value to totally personalizing the music. They said yes, and it was an instant and definitive hit.
Medscape: How can music help patients with dementia and other cognitive problems?
Mr Cohen: Music has multiple benefits. People with dementia who have lost their short-term memory often retain their long-term memory, especially for music. If you play music from someone’s youth that holds personal meaning, it will help them stay connected with themselves and be more alive, alert, communicative, social, attentive, and more engaged. There is abundant research focus on music’s ability to reduce blood pressure, improve mood, enhance sleep, as well as reduce agitation and anxiety. Research has also shown that it reduces behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia. Then there is research around how music helps reduce pain, as described by an article from the Journal of Advanced Nursing in the 1990s. Music also helps to facilitate occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speech therapy.
Music, speech, and movement are all interconnected in the brain. People fail rehabilitation because they’re not getting up and walking. I remember this one gentleman who was not walking; he was given James Brown, and within a week he was walking 100 yards. There is no guarantee that music will generate hoped-for outcomes. Everyone is different. But the music that moves you now will probably move you the same regardless of cognitive impairment later in life. If you are unable to communicate what music you love, and no one else knows, you might end up listening to music you don’t like. That’s why people are beginning to integrate their list of favorites into their advance directives.