Liza Berger

Is it spring yet? I don’t know about you, but all this quarantining and social distancing makes me long for sunnier, longer, brighter days.

But as long as we’re in the dark days of winter, we might as well make the best of it. Music, anyone? It seems that there is nothing like song — be it a Beethoven symphony, a John Coltrane jazz piece or a heart-thumping pop tune (take your pick) — to take us out of the doldrums and into a calmer, lighter, even joyful place.

Dan Cohen believes this, too, which is why he is a fierce advocate for long-term care residents having their own playlists. The social worker by training and founder of Right to Music, calls music “PPE for the mind.”

Music is more than a pleasant activity, he asserts. It changes mood, it helps calm dementia residents, it helps to counteract feelings of isolation and depression. In other words, during this pandemic we need it more than ever.

“This is not just a short-term way of helping people cope but will serve as a long way to help them center themselves, stay connected with others,” Cohen told me recently. “Music is a facilitator of relationships and relationships are the number one reason people are happy. Music checks all the boxes on person-directed care.”

Dan Cohen, founder and former executive director of the nonprofit Music & Memory, at his office in Manhattan, March 23, 2016. Photo credit: Leah Latella/The Wall Street Journal

Cohen, who was featured in the award-winning Sundance Film Festival “Alive Inside” documentary, said he has trained thousands through his program called Music & Memory, which helps caregivers develop playlists for residents. How to do it? Through research with the resident or resident’s family, caregivers can find out what music a resident likes and develop a list of personal music based on those preferences. Then they program 100 such songs on the Amazon Echo or YouTube or Apple Music.

Person-centered … playlists

Cohen’s philosophy and program are based on the idea that not one size (or song) fits all. Not every resident likes Frank Sinatra or big band hits of the 1920s and 30s, which many caregivers assume are popular among a certain cohort. It’s also not about a one-off or a music session, he stressed.

“My hope is to give people the music they love — not the music someone else wants to play,” he said. “If we don’t like the music at a wedding, we won’t get up to dance. As people are reconnected to music — be it their own and at the frequency that works for them — we want to make it as fluid as possible and build it into the workday. Because you can set someone up and let them be. They can put on the headphones themselves or with assistance.”

The result is an effect that goes beyond the particular resident. For example, if a resident is calmer, he or she may be more cooperative, which may improve a staff member’s mood.

“When personal music is enthusiastically adopted by a community, it improves the morale of the whole community,” he said.

And there may be no better time to put resident engagement to the test than the middle of January — in the middle of a pandemic.

“With a long winter, this is one action management can take that will have a material effect on mitigating the negative impact of isolation,” he said.

To that, I say, “Alexa, play show tunes!”

Liza Berger is Editor of McKnight’s Home Care. Follow her @LizaBerger19.