For Elders With Dementia,
By NPR Staff
April 18, 2012
Credit: Michael Rossato-Bennett
an elderly Alzheimer's patient in an American nursing
home, recently became a viral star. In a short video
that has been viewed millions of times online, he
starts out slumped over and unresponsive — but
undergoes a remarkable transformation as he listens to
music on a pair of headphones.
The clip is part of a documentary called Alive Inside,
which follows social worker Dan Cohen as he creates
personalized iPod playlists for people in elder care
facilities, hoping to reconnect them with the music
they love. Cohen tells NPR's Melissa Block that the
video of Henry is a great example of the link between
music and memory.
"He is able to actually answer questions and speak
about his youth, and this is sort of the magic of
music that's familiar for those with dementia," Cohen
says. "Even though Alzheimer's and various forms of
dementia will ravage many parts of the brain,
long-term memory of music from when one was young
remains very often. So if you tap that, you really get
that kind of awakening response. It's pretty exciting
Cohen says his goal is to make access to personalized
music the standard of care at nursing facilities. An
early concern, he says, was that headphones might
isolate the patients even further. But when he first
implemented the project on a large scale in 2008,
putting 200 iPods in four facilities around New York,
he got the opposite result: a flood of stories from
the staff about increased socialization.
"People wanted to share their music with others:
'Here, you've gotta listen to this,' or 'What was the
name of that song?' " Cohen says. "The music is great,
but to me, perhaps the even bigger win is people
having better and more relationships with those around
"My goal has been to find ways of bringing the cost
down to zero," he says. "Since there have been so many
generations of new digital devices that come fast and
furious, we have the old iPods — many of us in our
drawers at home — so let's bring them in. On Long
Island, there are five school districts that are
running iPod donation drives."
Cohen says that, ultimately, the project is about
helping people remember who they are.
"When you leave your home, you leave your family, you
leave your surroundings and you go into a new
environment; it's tough," he says. "So anything that
you can maintain or stay connected with that relates
to you [is helpful]. And what's more core to your
being than music?"
Dan Cohen's Tips On Music And The Elderly
Get the playlist
right. Find out the person's tastes and
create a varied mix: no more than five to seven songs
per artist. Have them weed out tracks that are so-so,
so you end up with 100 or 200 songs that all resonate.
Keep it simple.
Make sure the elder knows how to use the player, or
that someone nearby can help. Use over-ear headphones
rather than earbuds, which can fall out.
Be patient. It
can take time to reach the music memory. If the person
is responding, feel free to sing along. If someone
doesn't like the headphones, try a small speaker at
first and incorporate the headphones gradually over
Keep it special.
Don't leave the player on all the time. Nursing homes
are finding it works well during transitions: If
someone is hesitant to take a bath or eat or get
dressed, music may help move things along.
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