New and Inventive Ways of Caring for People with Memory Loss

People are living longer than ever, and for those who live to be 85, nearly half will have some form of non-normative memory loss such as Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Knowing this, why not begin with the end in mind? And if you have loved ones who are close to that age, why not plan ahead to use tools that help them feel more like themselves?

After all, most of us plan ahead in other ways. We plan for retirement, often starting at a young age. We plan for eventual illnesses, and even death, with advance directives, medical powers of attorney, wills, and estate planning. But few of us think seriously about planning for memory loss in our loved ones, even though statistics show how common it is among older populations.
As a gerontologist, I have studied and worked with the oldest of the old, people ages 85 and older, with non-normative memory loss such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s disease, and strokes. While these are not conditions any of us want our loved ones to develop, there are remarkably progressive approaches to make them more comfortable with the end stages of these illnesses and their end-of-life care. Most importantly, these are approaches that hold the possibility of helping both those with memory loss and their caretakers.

Providing inventive ways of caring for people with memory loss is becoming increasingly common for professionals working with the frail elderly. For example, a few years ago, many gerontologists became enamored with the documentary Alive Inside. It was (and still is) the topic of many discussions, in and out of classes.  

The documentary features Dan Cohen, a social worker and technologist who is intrinsically compelled to help isolated older adults by providing them with access to personalized music playlists. In the movie he casually asks “Why don’t we try this and see what difference the iPod makes?” The result is beautiful. If asked to summarize the movie, I would say that Mr. Cohen was able to help people in the depths of aging feel more like themselves by thinking outside the box. What a gift!

There is a scene from the movie that says it all—in fact, one of my favorite millennials posted it to my Facebook page a couple years ago. In this scene, Henry, an older man who has lived in a nursing home for ten years, is described as inert, maybe depressed, and unresponsive. After listening to music through headphones attached to an iPod— music personalized with some of his favorite songs—the descriptor became “He lights up and is animated.” There are reams of scientific data behind the therapeutic benefits of music and the brain, and music therapists have known and practiced the power of music for years.

To me, the iPod approach is a primary example of how a non-standard way of thinking about memory loss is helping folks stay happy—an example of using everyday technology to help older folks with memory loss. And this is key: not only do personalized music iPods help those with memory loss, but they are a new tool for people who care for those with memory loss.

There is more than one new tool to help folks with memory loss. At Generation Connect, that’s what we are trying to do—give you ways to use the mobile technology so many of us rely on daily, our smartphones and tablets, to help people with memory loss feel more like themselves with images, stories, games and more.