Bridget Sonnier-Hillis began pulling iPods of nearly every generation out of a box on her desk, one of them still in its original packaging, never opened.
The donated iPods were part of a nearly month-long drive to collect technology destined for a landfill, and redirect them to Music & Memory, a nonprofit group that distributes the players to nursing homes across the United States.
Sonnier-Hillis, psychology instructor at Baton Rouge Community College, learned of the program when, as part of a series of events on campus to recognize Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, the school hosted a screening of the documentary “Alive Inside: A story of Music and Memory,” about how people with Alzheimer’s and other dementia-related illnesses respond to music that has been meaningful to them.
“I particularly remember a clip of a man named Henry (in the film) who went from non-verbal to talking about his memories when he heard a Cab Calloway song,” Sonnier-Hillis said.
It moved many people, and as of Nov. 25, she had collected 37 iPods and $550 in iTunes gift cards. While it may seem small to the students who discard the technology, access to music, particularly when it is personalized, has made astounding differences in the quality of life to her nursing home patients, said Gloria McCall, director of Rosewood Nursing Center in Lake Charles.
It is changing not just the quality of life of the patients, she said, but also the quality of interaction with their families.
And the cost of providing such programs is negligible, especially when compared with other treatments — often more expensive and less effective, with more side effects - for insomnia, agitation, anxiety and withdrawal.
She said she has noticed with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients that there is something there, it’s just locked away and difficult to access.
“Our smokers never forget how to smoke, you know?” she said.
Something about music that is meaningful to the listener can unlock parts of the brain that had otherwise been closed, said Sonnier-Hillis.
“It’s not just people with memory-related issues, she said, but every resident, even those who come for palliative care and struggling to come to terms with end-of-life decisions, and those who are having difficulty adjusting to life at the center.
“Music is soothing. It’s calming,” she said, adding that they also provide books on tape and access to musical instruments.
“When patients who are combative and unhappy, it affects everything — nutrition, how much exercise they get, medication, socialization,” McCall said. Those residents tend to have more problems and deteriorate quickly.
When they are happy, they eat better, they move more, they have a greater sense of well-being, and often need fewer drugs — including psychotropic medications.
Rosewood started its program with a $19,000 grant from the Department of Health and Hospitals, though its program included designing a media room at the center.
Outside of training staff in the use of the program, implementing Music & Memory costs no more than the cost of the iPods, and the music to put on them.
The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals is now accepting applications from Louisiana nursing homes for grants to start up Music & Memory in up to 80 facilities in the state, Sonnier-Hillis said.
The students at BRCC hope to be a part of that with this contribution, she said.