‘Alive Inside’ ignites spark for those with memory loss
When John Ginn’s memory started slipping away, his wife, Arleen, made up a playlist of some of his favorite songs from years gone by, which seemed to help keep him in the present.
Turns out there’s a science behind it, she discovered.
Neuroplasticity, or brain plasticity, is the idea that the brain can continue to be altered even into late adulthood as long as it continues to receive stimulation.
It’s become central to modern therapy for people who suffer brain injuries, and increasingly for those with memory loss such as Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
After her own firsthand experience with John, Arleen Ginn was introduced to a national organization, Igniting the Spark – Alive Inside, which works to provide people who have memory loss with music therapy.
“It really does work for people, because we all have music inside us,” she said.
Working with their then- 13- and 11-year-old grandson and granddaughter, they loaded music onto iPods, wireless headphones and CDs, and made a regular habit of having John listen to music when they were with him at Grace Health Care in Glenwood Springs.
“He went into a different world,” she said. “He would start conducting and singing along.
“My granddaughter asked why everyone at Grace couldn’t have their own iPods and headphones,” Ginn said. “At first I told her it would be too expensive, but then I found out about Alive Inside.”
She started a local chapter, and began working to bring music to other nursing home residents using old iPods and other digital music devices that people didn’t want any longer.
After John died last summer, she wasn’t sure she wanted to continue the effort. But then things just sort of fell into place for her and a group of Glenwood Springs High School students to take things to the next level.
“I was given a scholarship for 10 all-in-one wireless headphones, and the project took on a life of its own,” she said.
Enter the cadets in GSHS’s Air Force Junior ROTC program, who were looking to take on a community service project.
“They had come to serve Thanksgiving dinner at the nursing home when John was there, and I told the colonel (Paul Nunemann) that I would like to give a presentation to the cadets and explain what I was trying to do,” Ginn said.
Last fall, a group of about 20 of the cadets began meeting with and interviewing several residents at Grace. The idea was to gather personal information about each individual, including their musical interests, and to personalize the playlists that they would go on to create.
Student Austin Hawkins spearheaded the project, and ended up developing a close relationship with resident Dave Hostetler, who happened to be a military veteran.
“I asked him some questions about where he grew up and who his favorite music artist was when he was a teen,” Hawkins said. “After I presented him with the headphones, I was blown away that he was able to sing along with the songs, and that he liked them.
“It really taught me how music can work with your brain and can change people and allow them to open up beyond whatever it is they’re suffering from,” he said. “I’m glad I was able to make a difference in the community, just with some music on some headphones.”
Hawkins documented the project by producing a 3-minute, 42-second video.
The students also experimented with making the music as personal as possible for each individual. Using a splitter, the students could listen along and see if a particular song resonated.
“We had a Chinese lady who we provided with Cantonese music, and a French woman who wanted French music,” Ginn said. “Certain genres of music worked for different people. Some wanted patriotic music, others wanted Christian music …
“To watch the spark that happens when the teens interview the elders as to their personal music, it just touches the heart,” Ginn said. “The joy went both ways.”
‘SHE JUST CAME ALIVE’
Cadets Cole Williams, Sophie Pittenger and John Aikey all spoke about the experience as well.
Williams said the resident he worked with Paul Lee, a retired Air Force colonel and chaplain, wasn’t very talkative or active until he listened to the music.
“When we put the headphones on him, you could just see it immediately in his eyes and the way he would smile and talk,” Williams said. “We could have conversations and laugh, it was just an amazing sight to see.”
Pittenger found a musical connection with resident Sheila, as it turned out they both liked the song “Sandman.”
“We both just started singing along to it, and dancing,” she said. “She just came alive.”
Aikey said he appreciates the science behind the project, which was a natural for the Jr. ROTC students to take on, he said.
“It really fits in with our program, and the core value of helping others and respecting our elders,” Aikey said. “It’s something more cadets should be doing.”
Ginn has also been working with residents at the Harmony House group home in Glenwood Springs, and the newest nursing facility, Peregrine Landing, to bring music to memory patients there as well.