Music & Memory Showing Transformative Documentary at the Sie Tonight

Music & Memory Showing Transformative Documentary at the Sie Tonight (3)EXPAND
Photograph courtesy of Michael Rossato-Bennett
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In 2006, when Dan Cohen saw iPods explode in popularity, ending up in the hands of every teenager and adult, he noticed that one group was being left behind: the elderly.

This was especially troubling to Cohen, who has a background in social work and technology, because he views music as not only powerful, but capable of healing. Cohen called up some nursing homes in New York, where he resided at the time, and discovered that not a single one had access to iPods or, for that matter, much of any music for their residents.

That's when he decided to start his nonprofit Music & Memory. Currently working in more than twelve countries, the foundation connects residents of assisted-living facilities with personalized music that could unlock memories taken away by dementia or other ailments, or simply help cheer them up. Now the foundation has partnered with Colorado Health Care Association & Center for Assisted Living to roll out music programs to nursing homes in the state.

Alive Inside: The Story of Music & Memory chronicles Cohen's journey in creating the foundation. It will screen Monday, August 13, at the Sie FilmCenter. In advance of tonight's screening, we caught up with Cohen to learn more about Music & Memory and how it's impacting Colorado.

Westword: What is the film about?

Dan Cohen: The film is an inspirational look at the power of music. By reconnecting with music they love, even people who have advanced dementia — they may not be able to recognize their own family members any longer or they may not be able to speak, to communicate — will recognize a song, which helps keep them in touch with themselves and be more social, alert and more themselves.

[The film] won the Sundance audience film festival award in 2014; the 50,000 people that attended ultimately chose Alive Inside as their favorite. It’s inspirational. People tend to think, "Oh, it’s dementia, it’s going to be a depressing movie," and it’s not the film at all.

It’s multi-generational, young and old. Almost everybody is connected to someone in need or someone who may have some form of dementia. It’s personal for everyone.

Music & Memory Showing Transformative Documentary at the Sie Tonight
Photograph courtesy of BOND360

How does this film affect the elderly living in Colorado?

Our goal in Colorado is that every person who might benefit from it has access to music. We are setting this up so if someone is at home and healthy, they can list what music they want before they decline. So before they go to the assisted-living facility or a hospital or a nursing home, they walk right in with their music. And should they go from nursing home to hospital, the music can go with them, and that can transform their hospital experience. Instead of being frightened and anxious, If they have their music, they are more likely to be calm and communicative.

We all have our own life experience with music. It's tough for people to acknowledge something more impactful than music.

What was your life experience with music that led you to this idea?

I don’t have a compelling story that journalists tear after [laughs]. I’m a social worker by training and profession, but I also have a career in technology companies, and I would always be introducing new technology to businesses, organizations and individuals.

Today there’s sort of a digital bubble, a digital isolation. There may be a lot of technology around [the elderly], but these folks that are older may be technophobic. But we can give you music with this device and you don’t have to worry about how it functions. You just tell us what you love, or we will ask your family and friends, and we will just give it to you.

Half the people in nursing homes never get a visitor. So if I were in a nursing home and my friends and family aren’t visiting me, it’s a recipe for decline.

Music & Memory Showing Transformative Documentary at the Sie Tonight (2)
Photograph courtesy of BOND360

As technology has evolved over the years, have any aspects of your program changed?

It’s kind of funny. Yes, I mean, you have the streaming technology, but a lot of nursing homes don’t have available wi-fi, so if you don’t have it, you can’t use it. The devices need to be Internet-enabled, which is more expensive, as opposed to an MP3 player.

Do you hope to make the newer technology more available?

Technology changes very quickly, and we are ready and willing to do whatever works. But in the face of what is actually possible and affordable...this is why we depend on the public for support, to bring more people their music.

We’ve had multiple rollouts of iPads and tablets, then we blend the music with apps. A lot of people don’t realize the many ways apps can be used for people with Alzheimer’s disease and how it can improve their lives.

What’s a memory that will stick with you while doing this work?

I get a constant stream of videos that people send in of stories. It’s not any one [memory]. In the beginning, [we had] a gentleman that couldn’t speak and was angry. He’d be throwing food and cursing at staff, so we tried to figure out the kind of music he liked. He couldn’t communicate. Does he have family that could tell us? No. But they knew he was a veteran, so we made up a playlist of patriotic songs, put the headphones on him, and he calmed down and started humming to the songs. And that was the end to his distress. It’s that kind of thing that tells me this works.

Music & Memory benefit reception with a screening of Alive Inside: The Story of Music & Memory, 7 p.m. Monday, August 13, Sie FilmCenter, 2510 East Colfax Avenue. Find out more at 720-381-0813.

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