This is a commonplace sight – yet usually of a customer in a café, a person sitting on a park bench, a commuter on a bus. But this scenario is taking place on the Jewish Home’s dementia care unit. The woman singing to the music has severe Alzheimer’s and rarely speaks or engages with her nurses or even visiting family members.
She is participating in iEngage, a Jewish Home program that provides a personalized soundtrack recorded on an MP3 player and played for residents on headphones. It is the Jewish Home’s version of a system created by Music & Memory, a nonprofit that uses digital technology to enhance the lives of the elderly or infirm through music.
Research has shown that the parts of the brain used in the memory of music are not as affected by most forms of dementia as are the parts used in communication. Thus music – live performances, sing-alongs, and background music – is often found in senior facilities. iEngage takes this information and improves upon it by asking family members what music was meaningful to their loved one in their earlier life, then producing a personalized playlist on an MP3 device and delivering the music to the resident through headphones.
The objective, says Olga Lavault, a recreation therapist at the Home, is to use nonpharmacological intervention to improve the lives of withdrawn, disoriented or distressed residents.
“As people age, their sensory access to the world diminishes. Their world gets very small,” explains Olga. With weakened hearing and vision, along with symptoms of dementia, a resident may not be aware that someone is playing the piano or they may not be able to focus on the musician. However, when they recognize the music they are hearing at such close range, it helps them focus. “They come alive,” she says. “They smile. They’re happy.”
Samantha Rubin-Pope, a 17-year-old senior at Branson School in Ross, Calif., spent this past summer volunteering with iEngage. She met with residents and families to introduce the program, researched and downloaded suggested songs, and set up and played the music with the residents. “The results are pretty spectacular,” she confirms. “Typically, some people rarely talk, others don’t have the best or most positive attitude, or they’re shy. But when I play the music for them, they come to life.”
iEngage came into play at the Jewish Home in the summer of 2014 when Olga mentioned to Vadim Sakovich, the son of resident Nora Sakovich, that she was interested in starting a program along the lines of Music & Memory. Mr. Sakovich generously gifted the Home with five sets of paraphernalia for the project. Next, Laura Bowlby, a recreation therapist interning at the Home, tested the program with five residents, with extremely positive results. Today, between 10 and 15 residents are connecting with iEngage.
“For residents with dementia,” Laura maintains, “music is the medicine that can turn the dials of time for their memory and spark that inner self that may have retreated from a confusing and disorienting existence.”