Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/6/2015 (1572 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Elsie Jackson, 89, has some trouble stringing sentences together normally, but hand her a pair of headphones and she can sing all the lyrics to Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Or Lazy River. Or I’ll Be With You in Apple Blossom Time.
"Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful!" she says after listening to Apple Blossom. "That was lovely. Oh, I love it."
Jackson is one of 19 residents who use the Music & Memory program at Misericordia Place and Misericordia Health Centre. Introduced in May 2013, the program pairs patients with dementia, Alzheimer’s and other degenerative diseases with volunteers armed with iPods.
They curate playlists full of the patients’ favourite music, which tends to be wartime tunes or Rat Pack ditties, since most of the patients are in their 80s and 90s, says volunteer Natalie Baird. With help from the residents themselves and their families and friends, they find tunes that trigger happy memories of days gone by.
"During the session, it’s a really intimate moment," Baird says. "We’re sharing headphones; it’s only us that are experiencing the music. Often, we’re looking each other in the eyes and dancing along together, and I like to sing with them. I don’t think a lot of people in care get that one-on-one connection very often."
Music & Memory started as an experiment by a social worker in New York. Dan Cohen brought 200 iPods into four nursing homes and volunteered making personalized playlists for the residents.
The concept spread to hundreds of long-term care homes across the United States and Canada, including four in Manitoba. The Misericordia and Donwood Manor personal care homes are the only certified Music & Memory locations in Winnipeg.
Jackson has her own iPod full of songs she can nab from the front desk to listen to whenever she wants. Once a week, she listens with Baird or another volunteer.
On Wednesday, Jackson wells up repeatedly during her session with Baird. Somewhere Over the Rainbow reminds her of her mother, she says. Baird pats the older woman’s arm and listens to fragmented family stories.
"My dad liked to sing, too. I came from a family of singers — we all loved it," Jackson says.
The silver over-ear headphones, labelled with their names penned on masking tape, drown out the bustle in the hall outside the Misercordia Place library. Nurses, care home attendants and other residents walk and wheel by, some craning to see what’s happening among the books. None probably realizes what a beautiful time Jackson is having.
"I’m all shook up," she whispers with Elvis Presley. The King also reminds her of her dad.
"I think working here has really helped me understand the challenges of the personal care home system and our aging populations," Baird says. "I think we should all be working together to improve (seniors’) quality of life, and I think it’s programs like this — these really life-enriching programs that are very personalized — that will make that step."
Ellen Locke, the Misericordia’s manager of recreation services, says the key to Music & Memory’s success is its custom build.
"The music has to be focused; it has to be something so meaningful to the individual," Locke says.
"We have a gentleman on the other side (of the building) who… would sit and cry and listen to the music, and we would ask him, ‘Do you want to continue listening? Is this OK?’ And he would always say yes."
Bobby Vinton’s Blue Velvet was a constant trigger for tears for the gentleman, and volunteers weren’t sure why.
Then one day, his wife came to listen with him.
"She was telling us they used to go to the dances. Every Saturday night, they’d take the train and dance to Blue Velvet," Locke says. "He was more physically impaired. So for him, the fact that he couldn’t dance with her and he couldn’t go to the dances (made him emotional)."
The Misericordia is hoping to recruit more volunteers who would like to spend time listening to music with the seniors. Donations of gently used iPods or iTunes gift cards could also help them grow the program to include more residents.
Anyone wishing to donate can drop off items at the front desk of Misercordia Health Centre.
"It always touches my heart, and I’ve been doing this for two years straight," Locke says. "It’s a simple thing to do, but it brings such joy."
After 30 minutes, the stoic, stone-faced Jackson who rolled into the quiet library in a wheelchair is gone. She’s been replaced by a toe-tapping, singing version of herself.
"It’s a beautiful thing to do, dear. Keep it up," Jackson tells Baird as she wheels her back into the common room.
Jessica Botelho-Urbanski covers the Manitoba Legislature for the Winnipeg Free Press.