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Music sparks memories for Toronto Alzheimer's patients

Last Updated Apr 6, 2015 at 12:33 pm EST

In this March 12, 2009 file photo Apple iPod Shuffles are posed for a photo at an Apple store in Palo Alto, Calif. A billion-dollar class-action lawsuit over Apple’s iPod music players heads to trial in a California federal court Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014, in an antitrust case where the legal wrangling has lasted far longer than the technology that sparked the complaint. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File)

More than 40 years since Mohammed took his wife Mary to a Nana Mouskouri concert on their first date, the couple still listens to those love songs together.

Mary, 71, who has had dementia for 20 years, has forgotten how to speak or walk and has a 10-word vocabulary.

But when Mohammed plays Nana Mouskouri for her in their nursing home, she hums the tunes.

“And she’s bang on,” said Mohammed who declined to provide his surname.

Rather than vinyl records, these days Mary mostly hears her favourite songs on an iPod nano donated through the Alzheimer Society of Toronto’s Music and Memory iPod Project.

The project, modelled after a project started in the United States by social worker Dan Cohen, distributes iPods with personalized playlists to Alzheimer’s patients.

Since the Toronto program launched in January 2013, the society has distributed about 1,000 iPods to patients like Mary, says project co-ordinator Sabrina McCurbin.

Their goal is to distribute 10,000 within three years, which would cover about a quarter of the 40,000 Torontonians diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

As McCurbin explains, the brain segments memories into facts, events, procedures and emotions, and the emotion segment is often the last to go.

Since music is processed in many parts of the brain, the emotions triggered by an old favourite song can ignite other memory segments.

“It’s not going to help them remember how to brush their teeth, but it will definitely connect them with that long-ago memory, and oftentimes the events, facts and emotions connected with it,” McCurbin said.

As an added benefit, patients and their families are assigned a social worker and receive ongoing support from the group.

The society has had an influx of patients as a direct result of the program. Of the 1,000 people enrolled, McCurbin estimates about 60 to 70 per cent had never contacted the society before.

A core group of 10 volunteers spend time every week loading music onto the iPods.

The music must be tailored to each patient for the best results. And choosing the playlist can be a healing process for friends and family as well.

“It really is cathartic for me to sit down and think about what my wife likes, what would make her happy, what would give her comfort,” Mohammed said.

Though McCurbin says the impact on caregivers wasn’t given much thought when they launched the project, they have been pleasantly surprised by how many connections have been rekindled through the music.

One woman called McCurbin saying she was able to clean up after dinner, wash the dishes, and put everything away in peace while her husband, who by that point needed almost constant attention, quietly listened to music in the other room.

“It sounds so easy to us, but it’s on a day to day basis. It gave her respite.”

McCurbin says the benefits can be even greater for spouses.

“They were there in those moments, they danced with them at the wedding. It’s an opportunity to be reminded that they have been looking so much at the disease, but the person is still in there,” McCurbin says.

For Mohammed, the music helps him through the difficult moments, like the first time Mary looked at him as he crawled into bed beside her and asked what he was doing — forgetting they were married and mistaking him for a son.

“She’s forgotten who I am in many respects. We spent the best part of well over 38 years together and she basically doesn’t remember it as far as I can tell.”

But when he plays Nana Mouskouri or music her mom used to play for her, he can see on her face that she is in a calm, happy place.

“Music is a wonderful, wonderful creation … It’s buried deep inside us. And it’s probably the only thing that will stay with her for the rest of her life as long as she lives.”

Click here for more information on the project and to donate unused iPods.