It started with a cuckoo clock, an ugly one—brown and plastic with a flimsy pendulum.
Sally Inglett found it in 2012, wedged in a bargain bin, for a mere $10. The red cardinal clumsily popped out every half hour, and sang a short birdsong. Instantly, she knew it was perfect.
Inglett took the clock to her mother, Nancy Mathews, who was living in a Houston, Minn., nursing home, and suffering from dementia. Nancy had become unresponsive, and Inglett found she was unable to tell what her mother was thinking.
But she recalled that her mom loved cardinals. She hoped the clock would generate some kind of response.
Back in her mother’s room, Inglett placed the clock down and waited. “It was actually really tacky,” she says. “I was kind of embarrassed to bring it in there.” Still, when the plastic bird flew out, her mother turned her head and moved her eyes towards the sound. This was huge. For the first time in years, Inglett felt they were able to connect.
The experience got her thinking—why not take the time to find out what people with dementia love, before the disease has progressed, and use that knowledge to generate good feelings later?
When her mother passed away in 2013, Inglett felt motivated to turn her ideas in to action.
“For many years I didn’t realize that I was identifying my mom with her disease and her symptoms,” Inglett says. “I felt really ashamed of myself. I wished I’d remembered who she was and what she meant to me.”
For many years I didn’t realize that I was identifying my mom with her disease and her symptoms.
Inglett, 51, who works as a network administrator in nursing homes, had recently returned to school to complete a degree in the Professional Studies program at Winona University in Minnesota. She noticed that both staff and residents in nursing homes had increasing access to screens, through computers and iPads, and decided to harness that technology.
As part of a school project, she began to develop MEternally Memory Modules, software designed to bring comfort to people with Alzheimer’s and dementia, and to connect them with caregivers and loved ones.
The concept is simple: MEternally allows users to collect pictures of subjects loved by the person with Alzheimer’s—animals, family members, a national park or the 1950s, for example—and play them back on a computer or television screen. In time, Inglett hopes they can add music for an additional sensory experience.
Currently, the software gives users access to pre-assembled photo banks, but Inglett is working on individualizing the program. That way, people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s can choose images themselves, including their own personal photos. Later on, someone who knows them well can do the choosing.
The goal of the software is to surround Alzheimer’s patients with things that make them happy or comfortable. Continuity, Inglett says, is key. When people with dementia are exposed to the same sounds and images day after day, it helps to provide a sense of stability and familiarity.
The software can also allow professionals to better relate to dementia patients. Often in care facilities, Inglett says, staff have trouble connecting with people with dementia who have become unresponsive. But with MEternally, staff can get a sense of the people’s interests and personality, even if the patients can’t express them themselves.
“It sort of brings this humanity,” Inglett says. “That is what I really wish I would have had with my mom. Where I would have pulled up a chair and sat next to that bed and had something to talk about.”
MEternally is still in its early stages. In order to expand her project, Inglett enlisted the help of her son, Nathan Snyder, her sister, Kay Mathews, and Winona graduate, Kai Hanson. While they have developed a working software program, the team is still creating a physical device to use it on. They are aiming to start selling the software by late summer 2014.
In the future, Inglett hopes to make a web-based version to help remote caregivers. That way, families and friends who live far away can connect with dementia patients regardless of distance.
Until now, the project has been funded out of pocket, with the four contributors chipping in about $10,000 of their own money. The group hopes to raise money through a Kickstarter campaign, to purchase licensing rights for photos and music.
But even as she and her team build on her original idea, Inglett says they will keep the device simple. “We’re not trying to make people remember a specific event. We’re not pressuring people to know anything. This is all to do with trying to connect people for joy.”
For more information about MEternally Memory Modules, you can visit the website.
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