Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Thanks for the memories. As its website states, Music & Memory is a non-profit organization that brings personalized music into the lives of the elderly or infirm through digital music technology, vastly improving quality of life.

Music & Memory helps nursing home staff, elder care professionals and family caregivers to “create and provide personalized playlists using iPods and related digital audio systems that enable those struggling with Alzheimer’s, dementia and other cognitive and physical challenges to reconnect with the world through music-triggered memories.”

I’ve written about this worthwhile program before and have recently had the opportunity to speak with Music & Memory Founder and Executive Director Dan Cohen about how it works and how we can all help give the gift of happy memories.

JWK: I understand you’re a former social worker.

DAN COHEN: I would say I’m still a social worker.

JWK: That’s true. How did you come to found this organization?

DC: I guess about six years ago I was listening to the radio and the journalist was talking about how iPods are ubiquitous and I thought, you know, kids have them and lots of people have iPods but, (I wondered) if I ever wanted to take my sixties music on my iPod into a nursing home, would that be possible?  So, I googled “iPods” (and) “nursing homes” and, even though there are 16,000 nursing homes in the U.S., I couldn’t find one that was using iPods. So, I called up a local facility on Long Island here and I said “I know music is already your number-one activity but can we see if there’s any added value to totally personalizing the music? And they said “sure” and I came with my laptop and some iPods and it was an instant and definitive hit with the residents.

JWK:  So, basically, you just had a gut feeling that this would be a good thing to do.

DC: Yeah. I figured that when you get older you don’t like music any less but what happens (when) people go to nursing homes is they have to leave everything behind. They leave their record collection. They leave their neighborhoods, their pet, their family. And…while there is music in a nursing home, very often it’s music for the era. So, it’s like if I said to you “What’s your favorite type of music?” and then I tried to guess the exact songs. It would be pretty unlikely I’d be able to guess those songs.

JWK: Of course, many of these people have trouble communicating for themselves. How do you choose which precise songs will go on an individual’s iPod? Do you ask relatives?

DC: Yes, that’s exactly right. We ask the relatives (when) people are not able to articulate what they like.

JWK: Are you surprised by home many people have watched this video. It’s six-million, I’m told.

DC: Actually it’s 7.4 (million) because there are multiple copies of that same video on YouTube. (The) one them with the largest (number of views) has six million. Another has (about) 980 thousand. And then there are others.

(JWK Note: That’s as of about 10 days ago when this interview was conducted.)

DC: So, it’s pretty astounding actually because no video on Alzheimer’s or dementia has ever had more than a fraction of that in terms of views. So, why is that this was of so much interest? I think…you know, Alzheimer’s is such a…terminal disease and it is all just sort of a steady downhill for people. Yet, here’s a guy who’s old, he got Alzheimer’s, he’s in a nursing home and he’s…fully engaged. And that’s only as a result of the music. So, that really captured people.  Plus, he’s got a great personality and happens to have a great voice.

JWK: Is there any evidence, at this point, that music can slow Alzheimer’s disease or does it just make them more engaged while the disease is progressing?

DC: It’s not a cure for Alzheimer’s. But what it does do is…its engaging with those parts of one’s self, parts of the brain, that are still functional — only approaching them, engaging them, through sort of a backdoor. It’s bypassing the cognitive system which is failing and it’s reaching memories from one’s youth that are retained. So, even though someone is no longer able to recognize a loved or they stopped speaking, when they hear a song from the time they were 10 or 15 or 18-years-old, it will have them awakened and starting to sing and talking and remembering about the incident maybe that’s associated with (the song) –“Oh, this is when…we got married or the first time I went to the beach with my friend and somehow there’s a connection that is made with something that would otherwise be lost.

JWK: It must be an emotional thing for family members to see too.

DC: Family members absolutely love this.

JWK: How is Henry (the man in the video) doing now?

DC: Actually, Henry has passed. He’s dead but…he’s had his music for four years.

JWK: How long ago has he passed on?

DC: I’d say about six weeks ago. But one thing he held (was) he had the same reaction to the music before he died as had compared to when he first listened to the music which is really interesting.  I asked the caregiver — because we were on the CBS show The Doctors — and this is before he died and I said to Yvonne, who you see in the movie, “How’s Henry doing with the music?” She said “Yeah, he’s still reacting to it. He still loves his music?” I said “How’s he doing physically.” (She said) “Oh, not so well. He’s deteriorating.””  So, what’s really interesting about this is the fact that, wow, if  we make it so that people don’t totally deteriorate in the minds as their body wastes away, that’s a pretty massive win. No drug can do that.

JWK: I wonder if such a program would be helpful beyond Alzheimer’s. Say, to people in hospices.

DC: Absolutely it is helpful to people in hospices. It is being used in hospices.

JWK: Is that the direct result of your nursing home effort?

DC: Yes.

JWK: Getting back to Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, is there any theory as to how this whole music connection thing works?

DC: Music is just very powerful. If you think about it, in our society, where is there not music? There’s music every time people get together to celebrate. There’s music when we’re by ourselves and we want to change our own mood. It just permeates so much. I mean if you think of the music that’s your favorite music and what it does to you and how it changes your mood on a dime. Why is that? It’s just the power of music. It does have power.

JWK: And how can Beliefnet readers help support the iPod program?

DC: They can help in multiple ways.

Number One, when they have a family member who has Alzheimer’s or is depressed or who is lonely, they can certainly think in terms of using the music…It’s up to us to help them stay connected…So, when someone is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, definitely hurry up and get that playlist together of what their favorite music is because that will…last them the rest of their life.

The second thing they can do is they could donate an iPod…or if they want to run their own little iPod donation drive at a school or a business or a religious organization or anywhere. Because there are lots of these iPods sitting in a home unused. So, we can do that.

And thirdly, they can go on the Music & Memory website and make a monetary contribution if they don’t have an iPod. For $49 we can buy a new iPod. An iPod will change someone’s life for the rest of their life. It’s not like you’re giving something and it only lasts a day or a week. No, this is gonna last till the day they die. And that’s really exciting and powerful.

And for those that want to volunteer in nursing homes…they can spend time with people while listening to the music.  Because we’re finding that a big win is not just the power of the music (over) moods but it makes people more social and sociable and, as a result, it also makes it possible for families or volunteers to have a better time, a better quality time, when they visit. So, there’s a lot of things.

NOTE: As our conversation drew to a close, Dan Cohen told me that iPod music is also being shown to yield benefits for MS and Parkinson’s disease patients. In the case of Parkinson’s, for instance, he says it can both help alleviate symptoms and Parkinson’s-related dementia and help with the timing aspect of the disease as the musical beats appear to somehow assist with physical coordination.

It all kinda remind me of a song.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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