Playlists created in the Music & Memory program have power beyond prescriptions. 

By Sally McMahon

Resident at Riverview Health Care Center in Prestonsburg, Kentucky, (at right) along with the Quality of Life Director.

The Music & Memory program, created by Long Island social worker Dan Cohen in 2006, helps provide iPods loaded with personalized playlists to people suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia across the country. The hope is that the music can trigger memories.

Cohen got the idea for the program in 2006 after he heard a story on the ubiquity of iPods, did some research and decided that they were a poorly utilized resource in nursing home care. He did a trial run at a local nursing home, sitting with a few residents to get to know them and their musical tastes, creating play lists based on their discussions.

It was an instant and definitive hit with the residents. They were talking and communicating in different ways. They were less agitated, more cooperative, more attentive, more engaged, in less pain and more articulate. It was also an instant hit with the staff, increasing morale.

The program started getting national recognition via a film called Alive Inside, which introduced viewers to his organization and provided a clip with the story of Henry, a 94-year-old who responded to the music provided by Cohen’s organization in a startling and affecting way.

Local Efforts

Long term care facilities have long realized the benefit of music, often scheduling a variety of music programs throughout the week. However, people with Alzheimer’s may not be able to appreciate the music in a group setting. They may not be able to understand or distinguish different sounds in their environment. The noise might lead to increased agitation and confusion. Or, they may not like the style of music being played.

We use it as a proactive resource and sometimes an alternative to medicine. If an elder has dementia or is feeling down that day, their individualized playlist can be used almost as a personalized, perfectly tuned dose of medicine.

How Music & Memory program distinguishes itself from general music programming is in the selection of the music. Music is selected specifically for each resident, based on their preferences. Brain research of people with dementia has shown that even when someone is no longer able to communicate verbally, he or she will still respond favorably to their favorite music.

Music & Memory programs are popping up all around the state of Kentucky. We spoke with Angie McAllister, Signature’s Director of Cultural Transformation, about the program. Below are the highlights.


Medical News: How do you integrate the Music & Memory program into the day?

Angie McAllister: Once our teams are trained in the Music & Memory program, the nurses and CNAs take the lead in integrating the program into daily life for our elders. The first step is creating a playlist individualized for an elder. Each elder usually has a favorite singer, a song that brings memories of a particular time in life, and a lyric that is his/her anthem.

We use it as a proactive resource and sometimes an alternative to medicine. If an elder has dementia or is feeling down that day, their individualized playlist can be used almost as a personalized, perfectly tuned dose of medicine.

MN: What surprised you about the program?

AM: What has been surprising is how the Music & Memory program is an incredible bonding tool for families and our employees. When your mother has Alzheimer’s and she may not know your name, families struggle with what to say during visits. But with a playlist your mother loves, families can be in the moment, rather than in worry.

For our employees, the playlists remind them of commonalities with the elders they care for. Music crosses generational and cultural boundaries in unexpected ways.

MN: Which residents use the program?

AM: Currently, 44 Signature HealthCARE locations are Music & Memory certified and two more locations are in the process to certification. The nonprofit Music & Memory focuses primarily on elders living with dementia, and at Signature we have found success with the program benefitting different populations of elders, beyond those with dementia.

Music reminds our elders with Alzheimer’s of past memories and emotions. Music can also transform an elder’s outlook. If an elder is isolated or the staff sees they are not engaging socially with others, music has the power to change their day. We’ve had elders who weren’t responding to anything, and they started responding to music.

MN: How do you measure success?

AM: The Music & Memory program is measured at the level of each certified Signature location. We know we have been successful when an elder is engaged in the moment. There’s no better measurement than observing an elder smile or move to the beat of the music.

MN: Give an example of someone who has benefited from the program.

AM: When we first launched the Music & Memory program at Prestonsburg Health and Rehabilitation Center, one elder, named Billy, was cognitively aware, but isolated. Billy was instantly moved and brightened with his playlist. The staff saw an inner peace in him that wasn’t there before. Now, he has taken on the role of choir director in the facility.