About Dan Cohen

Founder & CEO Right to Music, Public Speaker, Founder Music & Memory, Subject of Alive Inside Sundance award winning doc

Dan’s website: https://righttomusic.com/

When the producers of an amazing new documentary called “Alive Inside” loaded a clip from their film to YouTube, they weren’t prepared for the response. It quickly attracted more than 6 million views and stunned viewers with its heart-warming video of an elderly man with dementia coming alive when the music of his youth is played for him. 

“Alive Inside” profiles seven elderly people suffering from dementia and shows the transformation that occurs when they’re given iPods loaded with their favorite songs from years ago. 

Dan Cohen is the Executive Director of Music and Memory, the iPod Project, and he started it in 2006 when he was a social worker. He says it occurred to him to reach out to long-term facilities and ask who was using iPods. He discovered none were. Music is such an integral part of recreation in nursing homes but given limited resources in this country, long-term care facilities are forced to focus on group activities rather than individual interests, Dan says. 

He launched this project to get iPods into nursing homes because he realized if he himself was in one, he’d want to hear the music that appealed specifically to him, not the entire group. 

And he was amazed by the reaction from the patients. 

He explains how music is able to tap into people’s long-term memories. Even those people who no longer recognize their families suddenly become talkative and animated when they listen to the songs they listened to when they were young. He says no matter how ravaged someone’s brain is by Alzheimer’s or dementia, many people respond to the music because what we listen to in our youth gets so heavily imprinted on our brains. 

Full Transcript, Senior Care Industry Netcast

Valerie VanBooven:

Okay, This is Valerie VanBooven with the Senior Care Industry Netcast. Where leaders with three or more years of experience in the senior care industry share their advice. So let’s get to it. In a few sentences, tell us who you are and what you do.

Dan Cohen:

My name is Dan Cohen, founder and CEO of Right To Music. And really my goal is to serve as an advocate to make sure people have access to their favorite music, because we’re learning that not only do we like music and is music nice to have, but it also has therapeutic effects and it really can be, in some places better, than medication in terms of keeping people relaxed or whatever. So, my goal is to change policy and to share the information that we have learned both from our own experiences and from the research to take advantage of this in healthcare and in our lives.

Valerie VanBooven:

Sure, well tell us a little bit about what Right To Music does.

Dan Cohen:

Well, I speak publicly like today with you and work with organizations and healthcare and government to develop policy that will promote the use of music and also work with researchers to promote the undertaking research, for instance, research around which how much does music help reduce pain or alleviate loneliness or reduce a delirium? How much has it helped people with advanced Dementia, with Parkinson’s disease and with stroke?

Dan Cohen:

So in all of these areas, in certain situations, music can be therapeutic and helpful. And so music, people sort of are, we’re a very medicalized society. It’s sort of hell sure, I’ll take it, doesn’t matter what, how long the list of side effects are, music has, there’s no downside to music. There’s no risk to anything negative. At best, it can do great, good. Worst case scenario, no change. So why are we hesitating? Yeah.

Valerie VanBooven:

Right. Absolutely. And yeah, you’re right. It’s one of the most therapeutic things. And we see that so much more recently in the evidence of how it helps Alzheimer’s and memory loss and Dementia patients relive some of their youth and really be able to do things or speak or sing that they wouldn’t have done if music hadn’t been introduced to them.

Dan Cohen:

Absolutely. It’s a real gift. People, it’s sort of a backdoor to the brain for people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of Dementia that even though people decline in terms of their short-term memory and other ways, music is deeply embedded in many parts of our brain that are unaffected by the ravages of the disease. So even near death, people still will remember their favorite music.

Valerie VanBooven:

And that’s totally amazing. And I love it. So tell us, what is the best thing about serving aging adults?

Dan Cohen:

Well, for me, I love serving aging adults with music and connecting to their normal. You know, very often people are separated. People lose the ability to operate their record players. And of course, those record players are gone and they’ve been replaced with multiple, new generation after generation of new technology. You know, you mentioned streaming to someone old, they go like what? And so it’s very difficult.

Dan Cohen:

So we need to help people to make that connection to their music. And then when they light up, when they hear this song that they haven’t heard in years, or maybe decades, that lighting up process with music is just very exciting to me, humbling. And I know that helped puts help people be in another place, a better place. And you know, music has a residual effect, even when you’ve listened to your music, we all know this, you turn off the music and oh, I’m in a better mood now. And it sticks around for a while.

Valerie VanBooven:

Yeah, absolutely it gets your heart beating and it gets us, it gets your adrenaline moving a little bit. So it’s great. And your endorphins. So that’s awesome.

Dan Cohen:

We wait at a party, a wedding, whatever. We’re sitting down, we’re waiting for the song we really want to dance to and let loose. And so, well why is that?

Dan Cohen:

So music is closely connected to movement. We feel good when we dance. Music is closely connected to mood and to speech. Even for people who have had a stroke, maybe they can’t speak, but when they hear music, they can sing the words of the song and helps them recover this speech. So there’s other very specific uses for music that can be helpful.

Valerie VanBooven:

So tell us in your lifetime, or in your professional life has probably been folks that have been mentors to you or inspirations to you or organizations out there that you really, really like what they’re doing. Who would you like to talk about?

Dan Cohen:

So having trained thousands of nursing homes and hospitals and hospices and assisted live-in communities and how to set up systems to deliver music to people, their favorite music. I’ve just really come to appreciate the work that the direct care worker does. So the certified nursing assistants and the nurses and others who are working one-to-one with people. During the pandemic, when people, including my 93 year old mother who was in her room for a year, and it was only because aids could be there for her and visit, they became family.

Dan Cohen:

I wasn’t there, they were. And this is a more sort of a harder reflection, but this has been going on for, a pandemic or not, those who are doing the one-to-one care for our families or ourselves, if we were there, are very often, it’s a labor of love. They don’t get paid fantastically and they really deserve a lot of respect. And they’re very smart. I found in really a best ways to improve care and to pay attention and be the family for others while we’re not there. So it’s really goes both [inaudible 00:06:31]

Valerie VanBooven:

They do become the family. In pandemic or no pandemic. Those are the people that your loved one is with 24/7 and they do become like family members. I mean, they look forward to seeing certain aides and certain CNAs or whatever, every day that they have their favorites.

Valerie VanBooven:

I know my dad was in a nursing home for a time and, and he had his finger. It’s, there’s no doubt about it. He had his folks that he really,and it’s usually the older, experienced caregivers that would, he appreciated how they talked to him. He just really liked them. And so we all became good friends because we appreciated how they were caring for my dad. You’re right. The caregivers that are with our family members every single day are the ones that really deserve our appreciation and gratitude. There’s no doubt about it.

Dan Cohen:

As people get older and their family members and friends are, they’ve moved away, maybe they’ve passed away. So there are fewer and fewer relationships. And of course, some family members are hesitant to visit a nursing home, due to their own discomfort. Or if somebody has some form of Dementia and that’s a real problem. So we need to really reestablish relationships and the more staff does that, or volunteers or family members are encouraged to come, that’s really still important because relationships, good relationships, one, two, three relationships that are good equals happiness. If you don’t have relationships with anyone, well, what’s the point, right? So, that’s often, it is a priority for a long-term care community of some sort. And we’d love it to be that way in every nursing home, in every assisted living community.

Valerie VanBooven:

Absolutely. Well, talk to us about online marketing. So I would imagine that some of your outreach is definitely with online marketing, website and outreach. So tell us what your experience has been with online marketing, especially right now, when we can’t see each other face to face and that, or that may not have been an issue for you if you’re kind of doing things nationwide.

Dan Cohen:

Well, it’s always a challenge, online marketing. I remember the first time I did online marketing, oh, the, you know, whatever we got, Google gives you as a nonprofit, a million banner ads. And well, that was a waste of time for me then, and now it is about the video. Video, video video. Live events of some kind, Facebook live or others and whatever videos you can prepare, which show benefits of your service or product and communicating with the people who are in a position to influence that.

Dan Cohen:

So, that’s why I made the movie. When I started, people would say ,I was going as a volunteer, giving people in nursing homes to their music. And I tell my friends and family, oh, this is great. They really lit up. And they say, oh, how nice Dan, you’re bringing the old people music.

Dan Cohen:

And I go, no, no, no, no, you don’t understand. I’m really seeing something significant that goes beyond just, oh, the feel-good part of that. And so I brought in, I got ahold of a filmmaker one afternoon and filmed what turned out to be the most viewed video of anyone related to Dementia or Alzheimer’s globally at over 50 million views. Henry.

Dan Cohen:

And then from there, we did a documentary Alive Inside, which still can be seen today on Amazon Prime or Apple TV as well. And so, but that was really all driven from the fact that it is hard to communicate a message, especially if you’re talking about impact. That is difficult to communicate verbally.

Valerie VanBooven:

Yeah. You have to see it. You have to, viewing the impact of what you’re doing is probably the most dramatic impact you can have on the viewing audience. I mean, they’ve got to be able to really experience what’s happening for these people. So you’re right. I would say in your case, video and audio, obviously, because we’re all talking about music and any of that is going to be the best way.

Valerie VanBooven:

But I would say for anyone who is doing marketing online, just like you and I are having this conversation, it really is the best way right now. And I know it’s not for everybody, but really talking to someone else and getting their input and their insight and their wisdom and filming it, but also making sure that there’s a podcast version available and making it useful in many different ways. I think that’s really important right now,

Dan Cohen:

All forms of communication, whatever, wherever people are listening, large-scale, you’re one to many. So a podcast is a very powerful tool that way. The audio, the audio-visual, whatever, it gets you to the ears. So people aware of where are they without having to call or one at a time and do cold calling as we did in the old days.

Valerie VanBooven:

Exactly. Right. Okay. What piece of advice would you give to the senior care providers who are out there?

Dan Cohen:

What piece of advice is, to be persistent. To have faith in what you have and give things time. Nothing is going to happen quickly. Senior care providers do great work. Let people know don’t keep it a secret. I think that’s important. Communicate with providers. I mean, you’re talking about the nursing homes themselves.

Valerie VanBooven:

Yeah. I, in my mind, I thought you were going to say, make sure you include music in your curriculum for everyone.

Dan Cohen:

Well, actually to me, that’s a given. You can only do best practice. I think if you’re giving people what I’m told by many by department of health officials who oversee all the nursing homes and states, they say by far, this is giving people their own music is their number one quality of life approach.

Dan Cohen:

And that you can change someone’s day in a heartbeat. And there’s not many other ways to do that. And it also is scalable. It is something you don’t have to be there with everyone. You can set people up, they can be in their room, they can be waiting for a meal, they can be waiting at the doctors, have the headphones on and having a great time.

Dan Cohen:

And so, and it also, when that is introduced and people are using it throughout a community, the morale tends to go up because staff cares, CNAs, and such. Residents are more cooperative, the less resistant to care. So go ahead, bathing, which is often, there’s resistance around that. We know that. But when give people, oh, we give them their music 10 minutes before and going in and we have music play inside. We’ve got it all waterproof and such. And no problem, it goes smoothly. So they’re there and that makes the staffs’ day better. And that’s, that’s a great thing. Yep,

Valerie VanBooven:

Absolutely. Yeah. If you can make the clients feel happier, the staff definitely feels happier right along with them and it makes everybody stay. No doubt about it. All right. Great advice. All right. When you have a win in life or in business, how do you like celebrate?

Dan Cohen:

No, I think we have many small wins and hopefully not many small losses and some big ones here and there, but certainly, meal. I go out to eat or something, but you know, accepted, appreciated, acknowledged the win and then, go on feeling a little bit better as you go forward on all those other little wins, you’ve got sort of planned down in your head that you want to do. So that’s my own process.

Valerie VanBooven:

Yeah. Well, we’ve had all kinds of crazy answers, which are all right. They’re all good. We’ve had doctors show us a little bottle of tequila. We’ve had people say a martini. We’ve had people dance, some people jump into the ocean if they live near the ocean. So we will have a lovely dinner, which I would agree with you on that. Meal sounds good to me. A little glass of wine.

Valerie VanBooven:

So yeah, any way you want to celebrate is the right way. Whatever’s right for you. Small, little, being thankful, those are all nice things. So I appreciate that.

Valerie VanBooven:

Thank you for coming on the show. And I know it’s short and we could talk all day about what you have done and what you do. We’ll make sure all of your contact information, all of the things that you’ve done in this world are available with your video, but you did a great job and we appreciate you taking the time out of your day to be with us. So thank you.

Dan Cohen:

Well, thanks for having me, Valerie.