Tuesday 23 September, 2014

The iPod Project


By Gail Packwood

The past which is not recoverable in any other way is embedded, as if in amber, in the music, and people can regain a sense of identity. . . — Oliver Sacks

January marks Alzheimer’s Awareness Month in Canada.  According to the Canadian Institute of Health Research, 747 000 Canadians currently live with dementia and its most common form, Alzheimer’s disease.

There remains a stigma attached to a diagnosis of dementia and a fear of forever losing the person behind the disease by their loved ones.  40% of those who are diagnosed with the disease report feeling distanced from friends and loved ones when they first reveal their diagnosis.  Those with dementia lose personal memories – the individual is still there but they won’t necessarily be able to recall who loved ones are, locations, what they did for a living etc.  They essentially lose their story – the story of their life.

There have been many studies on how music affects brain function and mood (one of the better known is Dr. Oliver Sacks’ book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain).  The results from music and creative therapy can be quite remarkable, unlocking, if only briefly, emotions and memory that had been lost.

Two months ago, the Alzheimer’s Society of Toronto started the iPod Project.  The concept is simple.  The society gives iPods to people living with the disease that have been loaded with music that is meaningful to the individual – perhaps songs from their youth or what they first learned to play on piano. They help the family member or primary care giver set up music playlists and train them on its general use – how to download more music etc.

To participate in the program, you have to have received a formal diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, and still be living in the community (not in a long term care facility) within the GTA.

The results so far have been striking.  Hearing music from their past has generated responses from those who were primarily unresponsive, relieved anxiety and nervousness in situations that ordinarily caused both and generally helped to calm and relax the patient.  Many have been noted to start singing along or even dance with their iPod.  For someone who had been trapped outside of their memories, to recapture something of who they used to be, even for a few hours is wonderful.

Personalized music has the power to release memories and help the individual regain some sense of their identity, regardless of their music aptitude (they don’t have to have played a musical instrument for instance).  While the results are not permanent, they seem to be apparent in even very severe cases of the disease.  The respite is equally heartening for the family and friends of the Alzheimer’s patient as they get to see their loved one being a little bit of who they once were.

The concept of using iPods originated in New York City with the Music and Memories Project in 2011 (musicandmemories.org) and similar programs are now starting in Kansas and the Maritimes.  With such a simple idea and such positive results, hopefully the program will spread even further in the future.  Of course, anyone with access to an iPod or MP3 player could easily set up something similar for their own loved one.

In Toronto, the Alzheimer’s Society is still looking for participants! For more information about the Toronto iPod Project, visit the Alzheimer’s Society of Toronto’s website: www.alzheimertoronto.org.