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Touching a Chord

Touching a Chord


Launched in January 2013, the Music & Memory Project aims to distribute 10,000 iPods to people with Alzheimer’s and dementia throughout the City of Toronto within three years.

Speaking to a small group of experts and caregivers gathered to discuss the impacts of the Alzheimer Society of Toronto’s Music & Memory iPod Project, Dr. Bob Lester offers testimonial of the dramatic effect that music has on his wife, who is in the advanced stages of dementia.

“It was astounding.”

“Within literally seconds, I could see my wife seeming to relax – the stress in her face was disappearing. And I was even more amazed – my wife has very little spontaneous movement – when I looked down and saw her foot tapping.”

Using music to help people with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia is a growing niche in the long-established field of music therapy. Personalized music can improve mood, cognition, and can act as conduit of memory and communication. Pairing music therapy with iPods was a stroke of genius.

Founded by social worker Dan Cohen in the U.S. in 2006, the innovative Music & Memory project was developed to share the power of music in a simple and accessible way, without the need for formal therapeutic intervention.

By providing access and education, and creating a network of partner organizations and care facilities, the project aims to make the use of personalized therapeutic music a healthcare standard. Today, there are 60 facilities throughout North America with music programs.

Inspired by the work of Music & Memory and its recent viral success, the Alzheimer’s Society of Toronto (AST) created the iPod Project, funded by The George C. Hunt Family Foundation and the Ontario Trillium Foundation.

The AST, which provides the iPods, training, and technical support at no cost, requires only that the recipient, with assistance from a caregiver, provide a personalized list of their favorite music from the past.

They are reconnecting with their loved ones on a level that has often been lost.

So far, the AST has distributed over 1,200 iPods, and the results, though diverse, are almost uniformly positive. Though each individual’s reaction to music is unique, personalized music tends to have a calming effect while inspiring deep emotional recall for even those in the late stages of dementia.

For caregivers, music can offer much-needed respite. “Caregivers are reporting that they are a lot more confident in the care of their family member,” explains iPod Project coordinator Sabrina McCurbin.

“What’s more, they are reconnecting with their loved ones on a level that has often been lost. I receive calls from caregivers to say that they danced with their spouse in the kitchen for the first time in years when a particular song is played.”

Dr. Paul Williams of the Balance of Care Research and Evaluation Group, who examined the results from the first year of the iPod Project, suggests that the project may also have positive impacts on the broader healthcare system.

Dr. Williams found that the use of personalized music is particularly effective with individuals displaying behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia, which include things like aggression, anxiety, and depression. These symptoms, which Dr. Williams argues are too often treated with drugs, can be alleviated almost immediately by personalized music. The availability of an iPod can ease the burden faced by care workers in what are often understaffed long-term care facilities.

Dr. Williams also found that with increased confidence and support, caregivers participating in the project were more willing to support their loved ones at home, which remains imperative as the population affected by Alzheimer’s and dementia continues to rise dramatically in Canada.

“There is massive potential here,” Dr. Williams concludes. “It’s low-cost, low-risk, and if it doesn’t work, it still gains you a lot of important resources all around. It’s time to scale this thing up.”


Please contact the iPod Program Coordinator:
Sabrina McCurbin

To hook up with this wonderful program, go to the Alzheimer Society Toronto iPod project page, here.

Richie Assaly is a Toronto-based writer.

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