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Published on August 17, 2015

An iPod, an old-time playlist, and a life of memoriesAn iPod, an old-time playlist, and a life of memories

The woman, well into her 80s, sat nearly lifeless in a wheelchair, eyes drooping, arms listless upon her lap, isolated amid the activity around her.

Jenny Rapp approached her quietly and gently placed a set of earphones attached to an iPod shuffle around her head. Minutes passed. The woman’s eyelids began to quiver, then open wider and wider. The deep lines around her mouth formed a slight smile. She slowly lifted her hands to her ears.

The elegance of Ella Fitzgerald, the mystery of Billie Holiday and other once-familiar tunes triggered distant memories, awakening long-lost experiences trapped deeply within her deteriorating brain.

Soon, prompted by Rapp, she talked of the time she first danced with her future husband more than six decades ago.

Music and memory.

Rapp, an assistant activities director at JML Care Center in Falmouth, along with Director Tina Newcombe, are like explorers reaching back into the recesses of their residents’ minds, watching and listening ever so attentively to discover what lyric, what chorus or note might accomplish what pills often can’t.

Most of their long-term care patients, who are in their 80s and 90s, are suffering the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. Some recede into total silence. Others erupt in anger, triggered by confusion at not remembering the most intimate details of their lives.

Yet somehow, music can bring a glitter to lifeless eyes, a shuffle to an aging gate, a salve to burning frustrations. It’s not a panacea. But the joy it brings may last an hour or more a day, and can be shared by a loving spouse, daughter or son.

“Through music, they are being pulled back into the world,” Rapp said. “Suddenly they are engaged. It brings joy to their loved ones instead of guilt and longing.”

Music has long been a staple of life at JML and other long-term care facilities. Musicians, usually volunteers, come to play the piano or guitar, even a harp, in the lobby or dining room. Sometimes, a singer or small chorale group from nearby Cape Cod Conservatory or a local school performs.

And there is plenty of empirical and anecdotal evidence that music stirs the heart strings of nursing home patients. “But this is different,” Newcombe said. “There’s something empowering that happens when a patient has his own iPod, her own customized music.”

The iPods are the result of MUSIC & MEMORY, a nonprofit founded nine years ago by Dan Cohen, whose eclectic career combined social work and technology. Cohen had a simple idea: If he ended up in a nursing home, he wanted to be able to listen to his favorite ‘60s music. And then he thought: Why not bring used iPods into nursing homes to provide personalized music for residents.

Cohen began to imagine IPods in all 16,000 long-term care facilities across the United States. He volunteered at a local nursing home in the New York area and began creating personalized playlists for residents.

It worked. A miracle the first time, then a revelation, then a movement.

The Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation provided funds to purchase 200 IPods for four nursing homes. In 2010, Cohen founded MUSIC & MEMORY and took the personalized music program to hundreds of facilities in the U.S. and Canada.

The nonprofit helps facilities like JML, part of Cape Cod Healthcare, obtain digital music players, headphones, music, training, support and formal MUSIC & MEMORY certification.

The center’s first iPods and headphones came by way of a modest bequest from a former resident, who lived past 100. “She was a real toe tapper who even played the trumpet,” Newcombe recalled. Ten more sets were donated by Apple.

Among the residents are scientists and aerospace engineers, actors and authors, teachers and doctors, Rapp added.  “They are members of the greatest generation who fought in World War II. They helped build our country. Their stories still need to be told.”

The music program helps some residents emerge from their isolation and begin communicating with others.  “Sometimes, they start singing,” Newcombe said. “They may be listening to Glenn Miller and are transported back to that place in time. They will start talking about the war. They will recite a conversation they had with someone back then.”
Newcombe and Rapp, both certified by MUSIC & MEMORY, are now educating other staff so the program can operate night and day.

“Some residents might be insomniacs and need their iPods at 1 in the morning,” Newcombe said.

Both Rapp and Newcombe are fierce advocates of providing what they call “whole person care” to their elderly charges. “It’s not sufficient for patients to just have the security of a bed and food and medical care,” Newcombe said . “They need to be stimulated socially, emotionally. They deserve a proud quality of life.

“We’re on the road to discovery. I can only tell you what we are seeing, and it is working.”