"Music is still pretty magical," Dan Cohen says of his organization's work

By Alex Heigl
Updated December 16, 2015 04:40 PM
Michael Rossato-Bennett

Dan Cohen is listening to The Beatles when we ride up the elevator to the Music and Memory office. Specifically, “I Want to Tell You,” from Revolver, released in 1966. These details are important, because so much of Cohen’s work is tied to helping people recover parts of themselves through the songs they loved long ago, and it’s clear that he cares as much about music as he does about his work.

Music and Memory, which helps provide iPods loaded with personalized playlists to residents of nursing homes across the country, started getting national recognition via a film called Alive Inside, which introduced viewers to his organization and provided an immediately viral clip with the story of Henry (above), a 94-year-old who responded to the music provided by Cohen’s organization in a startling and affecting way.

Cohen’s background is in social work, but the bulk of his career has been in the tech industry, so when he heard a 2006 radio story on the ubiquity of iPods, he did some research and came to the conclusion that they were a poorly utilized resource in nursing home care.

“What is really unfortunate is that today, when you’re old and you enter an institution, you enter this digital isolation zone,” Cohen tells PEOPLE. “So we’re trying to break that down.”

Cohen called a local Long Island nursing home and asked if he could put together a sort of trial run with three iPods. He came in as a volunteer every two weeks and put together playlists for patients, filled with music they remembered from their youth. “And it was an instant and definitive hit with the residents,” Cohen recalls. Part of his approach was how personalized it was: Rather than simply picking music from an era, Cohen would sit with residents and talk with them about their tastes, customizing their playlists to their memory and specific preferences. This went on for 18 months, before an organization stepped in and funded Cohen’s experiment, expanding it to 200 people across New York City nursing homes.

Following up with staff at the homes, Cohen heard again how the music made residents more social: “They said, ‘Oh, you’ve gotta hear this song,’ or ‘This reminds me of when I met my husband,’ or ‘Remember the Andrews Sisters?’ They were talking and communicating in different ways. People were less agitated, more cooperative, more attentive, more engaged, in less pain and more articulate.”

Music and Memory was officially formed in 2010 as a non-profit. Currently, it serves over 2,150 assorted care facilities across the U.S., Canada, and a few other countries. Eleven states have integrated Cohen’s work into public policy and are funding research based on the work.

“After the Henry video went viral in April 2012, shortly after that I got a call from the Department of Health in Wisconsin. And they said, ‘We want to try this.’ And they were the first to say, ‘We want to set up 1,500 of our nursing home residents who have Alzheimer’s disease with their own iPods across 100 homes, and we’re going to have the University of Wisconsin track the results over 18 months.’

“Six months into that process,” Cohen recalls, “the feedback from the 100 homes was so positive, the Secretary of Health said, ‘We’re not waiting for the official results, we’re rolling out another 150 homes, another 1,500 people.’ ”

“What we learned in Phase I,” Cohen explains, “is that in addition to the benefits [to the residents], it also really tended to help staff morale and reduce antipsychotic use, so Phase II is going to focus more on the secondary benefits.”

“We don’t think twice about whether a person should have a TV in their room,” Cohen says. “So why for something so much cheaper and easier and more beneficial – TV does not have research around how it helps people reduce their drug use – is there resistance?”

“Neuroscientists, because they can image the brain, they’re learning a lot” about the effects of programs like Music and Memory, but “the bottom line is,” Cohen says, “music is still pretty magical.”

If you’re interested in learning more about Music and Memory, donating money or an iPod, or volunteering, head over to the organization’s web site.