Dozens of tech companies have recycling programs, offering users a way to put their old, discarded hardware back into the system for good use. Apple, Google, and Amazon, for example, all have pages dedicated to accepting any old gadgets you might have lying around.
But few of these recycling programs resemble Music & Memory, a non-profit dedicated to providing those in nursing homes or facilities with personalized music playlists on donated iPods or mp3 players.
Dan Cohen, a tech-focused social worker from Long Island, NY started the program in 2006 with just a laptop and two iPods, initially hoping to address the technology gap that disproportionately affects the elderly.
"iPods were ubiquitous for young people but not for the elderly, who love music just as much as anyone," Cohen said. "Alzheimer's and dementia robbed many of these people of their memory. But their emotional systems are intact. Music can tap into that emotion and bring back certain feelings."
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After a decade of hard work, the organization now gets endorsements from famous musicians like Elvis Costello, has its own well-regarded documentary, and collects 200 donated iPods/mp3 players per month that they recycle for nursing home use. Apple discontinued the last traditional iPod models in 2017, yet Music & Memory has managed to scrounge up over 16,000 iPods and mp3 players and distribute them to nursing homes and hospitals across the country.
The program has grown due in no small part to the very noticeable effect it has on nursing home patients. Nursing homes have almost always struggled to keep patients happy, engaged, social, and active, often using live musical performances to keep the elderly involved and aware.
"It has been absolutely amazing to see someone's face light up when they hear their own personalized music. We have seen a decrease in adverse resident behaviors, less wandering, more social interaction, and the residents are more upbeat and happy after listening to their music," said Kim Martinson, a nurse at Morseland Nursing Home in Wisconsin.
According to Cohen, less than half of all nursing home residents get regular visitors, and it isn't because they do not have relatives or friends. The program has allowed many families to reconnect with their older loved ones by helping them create playlists for them and tapping into a shared love of certain songs and artists. Access to their favorite music improves their sociability and makes visits more enjoyable for everyone.
"For me, Music & Memory is a weapon in the arsenal to fight for dignity, hope, and fulfillment in the lives of our elders," said Tom Davis, a director at Signature HealthCARE in Memphis. "This program, more than any other form of therapy, reconnects the resident to a sense of self and well-being."
Although elderly patients in nursing homes had always responded positively to live music, before Music & Memory, no one had thought to give them music players with personalized playlists. That has changed over the last decade, with at least 400 nursing homes per state adopting Music & Memory's program.
There are now nearly 5,000 facilities across the world that have added Music & Memory's program to their services, and it is becoming a codified public policy goal in a number of US states. More than 75,000 people currently take part in the program, spending about five hours per week listening to music. Their end goal is to have their program in at least 60,000 facilities across the world, and they are well on their way as they expand globally.
It is now a policy program at the largest hospital network in New York City and has branched out to 10 other countries including Israel, Australia, Argentina, Canada, and many places in Europe. The program is also moving beyond elderly patients, as science has shown that music therapy can help those in rehab or detox programs as well as those struggling with mental disorders.
"Technology like this can help people who are digitally isolated, and so much of our mission is figuring out what people need and how we can get it to them," Cohen said.
Families are encouraged to do this on their own by following an easy-to-use PDF on creating playlists for loved ones. Dan hopes to expand the program into helping the elderly use Internet of Things (IoT) devices such as those powered by Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, which he thinks can be useful to those who either can't use their hands or cannot see well enough to type on a screen.
"Technology makes them feel that they can still do things, and when you can still do things, you can still learn things, your mind is still stimulated," Oneida County Long Term Care Facility nurse Cindy Dawson said. "When you're stimulated, you start taking control of your life. You have initiative. This feels like their home, which is what it's supposed to be."
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Music & Memory has secured partnerships and funding from a number of organizations, including two headphone companies. Praise from nursing homes, patients, and families has been effusive for the recycling program.
"You can see the value of this program as being not just a casual activity, but almost a necessity for daily care, because of the promise and potential that it has for enhancing quality of life," said Dr. Concetta Tomaino, executive director of Institute for Music and Neurologic Function.
In the US, Cohen said the program is only reaching 2% of the estimated 2.5 million individuals in long-term care nationwide, and even less of the 4 million at home with some form of dementia. Eventually, he wants every nursing home to have music available 24/7, and with a steady stream of recycled iPods and mp3 players making their way into his coffers, he is ready for the challenge.
"The music that we love is tied in with our emotional system, and our emotional system is still very much intact even with dementia and Alzheimer's," Cohen said. "That's what we're connecting and that's what still works."
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Jonathan Greig has nothing to disclose. He doesn't hold investments in the technology companies he covers.
Jonathan Greig is a freelance journalist based in New York City. He recently returned to the United States after reporting from South Africa, Jordan, and Cambodia since 2013.