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How The Power Of Music Helps Alzheimer’s Patients Remember Themselves

An organization is teaching caregivers to bring patients joy through favorite tunes from their past.

Something incredible happens when an Alzheimer’s patient recognizes music from their past. Their face brightens, their feet start tapping, and, sometimes, as in the clip below, they even start singing along. People who seemed shut off from the world are suddenly part of it again.

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Dan Cohen first came up with the idea of personalized playlists for people with dementia back in 2006. And, since then, thousands of patients have experienced the same feeling as Henry (the gentleman in the clip).

“Since our music, emotions, and memories are so connected, we have something that’s very vibrant and alive regardless of whether we know where we are and who we are talking to,” Cohen says. “It helps reach people and helps them feel like themselves, so they’re less likely to be frustrated that they can’t communicate.”

Cohen says music is more effective than any drug in calming patients down, and, of course, music also has none of the nasty side-effects of powerful antipsychotic treatments.

The organization that Cohen started, called Music & Memory, now works with 2,250 nursing homes across the U.S. and Canada. Fourteen states, including Wisconsin, Ohio, Texas, and California, have policies to use music with dementia sufferers. And the Sundance-winning documentary Alive Inside, which is based on Cohen’s work, has helped spread the word far and wide.

But, even now, Cohen thinks there’s an opportunity to spread his ideas further, particularly by involving young people. He recently finished training 25,000 students in Texas to visit 1,000 nursing homes and help patients identify music they might like.

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“There are millions of youth who grow up for the most part with the same misinformation: that these people are as good as dead, that there’s nothing you can do for them,” Cohen says.

Meanwhile, there are also programs to bring music to people’s homes. The Alzheimer’s Society in Toronto is handing out 10,000 music players and personalized playlists as part of a public-private partnership.

“The support groups have always been frustrated because [they’re] taking care of the caregiver, but not [directly] helping the people with dementia,” he says. “Now we have the tool to train families to use to improve the life of the person with dementia.”

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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