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IPods Help Soothe Patients With Dementia at Washington Heights Care Center

 Isabella Geriatric Center's staff say music helps to soothe residents and ignite their memories.
IPods Help Soothe Patients With Dementia at Washington Heights Care Center
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FORT GEORGE — Joyce Lechner has trouble remembering where she went to college, which neighborhood she lives in or how long she has lived at the Isabella Geriatric Center, an Audubon Avenue residential care facility for seniors.

But ask her about Frank Sinatra, and the memories come flooding back.

“Frank was so kind to everybody,” said Lechner, 83, who worked as a hat-check girl at Los Angeles’ famous Villa Capri Restaurant, a favorite of the singer. “You’d hear that a couple came in from Wisconsin and had all of their money stolen. The next thing you know, Frank would send them money. He did that kind of thing all the time.”


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But better than talking about Sinatra is listening to him — something Lechner does several times a month through Isabella’s branch of Music and Memory, a program that provides iPods for the elderly or infirm. The program was particularly helpful in raising Lechner's spirits when she was stuck in bed for several days last year with leg pain.

“It just always makes me feel good,” she said of her sessions with the iPod.

Isabella keeps about 20 iPods on hand to share among the 80 or so residents living in the center's unit for patients suffering from dementia. The devices are pre-programmed with songs, and each one is dedicated to a different genre of music.

Isabella started the program in 2008 when Music and Memory founder Dan Cohen convinced the staff of the therapeutic value of connecting patients with personalized music.

He launched the program as a volunteer at a New York area nursing home and has since expanded Music and Memory, which was featured in the 2014 documentary "Alive Inside," according to the program's website.

Through funding from the Shelly & Donald Rubin Foundation, Cohen provided Isabella with 50 iPod Shuffles, an Apple laptop and a 500-song library to help them get started, organizers said. However, some of the equipment has broken and needs to be replaced, so the center is seeking donations of new or used iPods or funds to purchase supplies.

Karen Harper, the director of the dementia unit at Isabella, said the iPods help to soothe dementia patients who can become agitated or easily overwhelmed by external stimuli.

“Even if they push the headphones away at first, once the music comes on you see their body language change,” she said. “They start to sway back and forth or tap their feet.”

Harper said the staff is now more likely to try an iPod to calm an upset resident rather than immediately resorting to medication.

“It’s definitely a mood stabilizer,” she said.

For many residents, the songs also help to trigger memories. Harper described the reaction of a blind resident who sang in her church choir before she came to Isabella, explaining that the woman was able relive those memories when listening to gospel music on the iPod.

“Any kind of gospel music seems to take her to church,” Harper said. “She’ll start talking aloud, praising people. It just brings her there in her mind.” 

Harper said the ultimate goal is to have at least one iPod for every two residents so that more people can participate regularly in the program. Isabella is accepting donations of new or gently used iPods, and cash donations will go to buy more devices and headsets and add songs to its 3,000-song library.

While Isabella can simply play music during activities, Harper said that using the iPods has a much different effect on residents.

“With the iPods, the music somehow radiates through the body and people are able to focus on it completely,” Harper said. “When they have their iPods on, they’re in their own little worlds.”