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The Schmooze

When Music Is the Best Medicine

Photo courtesy of BOND/360

Carly Simon recently told The New York Times that one of her goals this summer was to see “Alive Inside” again. She calls the documentary, which won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, “an extremely moving depiction of the power that music has.”

She’s right. And so were the Sundance folks who selected the film as a favorite. It’ss a tear-jerker of a magnitude to raise the stock price of Kleenex Corp.

The movie chronicles Dan Cohen’s efforts to bring music to dementia patients in nursing homes and the extraordinary impact his project has had. It’s not just any music, but an iPod full of songs the patients grew up with.

Cohen, 62, posses a master’s degree in social work, but spent most of his professional life working for a tech company. In 2006 he read an article about how ubiquitous iPods had become, and wondered if he’d have access to his iPod if he were ever confined in a nursing home.

Cohen spoke to the Forward about his project, how the documentary came about, and forming the charity Music & Memory.

Curt Schleier: What happened after you read that article?

Dan Cohen: I Googled “iPods and nursing homes.” There are 16,000 nursing homes in the U.S. and I couldn’t find one. So I called a 600-bed facility near me and said, “I know music is already a number one activity. But would there be any added value if we totally personalized the music?” I have a laptop and a couple of iPods. It was an instant and definitive hit with the residents.

So the nursing home cooperated?

Even though I [have a degree in social work] I was coming in with an idea that was untested. They gave me three patients to work with: one was depressed because her best friend had died, another had diabetes, was blind and bedridden, and a third who, because of HIPPA [Federally mandated privacy rules] I never found out what was wrong.

And they all responded?

Six months after we started, the bedridden patient had a stroke and was totally comatose. The staff asked what we should do and I said, let’s continue with the music and see what happens. I came back in a couple of weeks, and the staff told me they don’t know what it is with this guy, but when the music is on his eyes keep moving. Was it an automatic reflex or was the music getting through to him on some level? Someone directed me to Dr. Connie Tomaino, who runs the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function. She’s sort of a global leader in the field and she told me I was heading in the right direction.

You added a second nursing home and for the first 18 months or so you financed it all yourself.

Then someone told me about the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation. Donald’s mother had Alzheimer’s and music was the only thing that brought her a sense of peace. And he wanted to fund it and roll it out to more nursing homes. I was a little concerned because I got a lot of comments from my friends, who told me I was nuts. They told me in nursing homes all the patients were isolated and putting headphones on them would only make them more isolated. Was I going to be able to replicate the results, now that I had larger numbers? The feedback I got from professional staff was that they didn’t see any signs of more isolation. In fact, the people were more social. They’d say, “Hey, you gotta hear this music. You ‘re about my age. Do you remember the Andrew Sisters?” Staff reported patients were more cooperative, less agitated and in less pain.

I assume that meant less need for medication.

When I started this, no one was looking at the meds. It only became a big deal in the last year or two when they started over-medicating Alzheimer’s patients who acted out in frustration with anti-psychotic drugs. One out of every 57 patients given anti-psychotic medication is killed by the anti-psychotic meds. I understood. You want to keep [the violent ones] from hurting themselves. But that was when they had no substitute. What we’re doing has a success rate of 30% to 50%. That represents billions of dollars in drug savings.

One doctor said he could write a prescription for anti-depressants costing $1,000 a month and the government would pay without a problem. But music isn’t considered medical intervention and won’t be covered.

I think we have become a very medicalized society. If it comes in the form of a pill, regardless of the long list of side effects, we’ll take it.

Yet you only have to look at one of the YouTube videos from the film, particularly Henry, the 94-year-old dementia patient. He was just sitting slumped in his wheel chair until you played him some Cab Calloway and miraculously he started scatting.

It was difficult for me to explain these great reactions. People just didn’t get it. So I asked the Rubin Foundation if they could suggest a filmmaker and they said Michael Rossato-Bennett.

He was only going to spend a day or two filming you and come up with a couple of vignettes for you to show.

Yes, but he saw what was going on and said, “Dan, we have a documentary.”

You also formed your own charity, Music & Memory.

It’s a non-profit call to action for people, anyone who has a family member in a nursing home or an assisted living facility and wants to help or wants to contribute. There are many ways people can get involved. The website has resource guides Students who want to help can run an iPod drive in school. We desperately need boxes full of them.

Can you tell me a little about your Jewish upbringing?

I grew up in Westbury, Long Island. Went to Hebrew School. Was a bar mitzvah. We were mostly holiday Jews though my parents are avid readers of the Forward.

Do you bring any of that with you to this project?

I don’t know how to split it apart. I’ve always wanted to contribute something good, to have an impact on the world. Maybe not the world, but just one piece of it.

“Alive Inside” opens in New York July 18 and nationally in the coming months.

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