PAUUILO — Pauuilo resident Jen McGeehan was kicking back at home, looking for a good movie to watch with her husband, Pat. They stumbled upon Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory. The documentary showed how people living with Alzheimer’s or dementia reconnected with memories as they listened to music that was once important in their lives.
“There was a dramatic change in the lives of people with memory loss, and also on their family caregivers, as if they’d been resurrected,” McGeehan, 63, said. “I was inspired.”
So, at age 60, McGeehan founded the Big Island charity, iPods For the Elderly. A seed donation from the annual Christian Women’s Gathering enabled McGeehan to buy the first batch of used iPods. She created a questionnaire for family caregivers, asking about music their loved ones once enjoyed. High school students involved with Teen Tech Tutors in Waimea helped program and load custom music playlists.
Chiyoko Pai, 96, got the first iPod at Hoonani Adult Care Services.
“Watching Chiyoko dancing to the music and laughing, made me cry,” recalled McGeehan.
The reaction from 92-year-old Fusae Suwa was similar.
“My mom loved Doris Day and Frank Sinatra,” said daughter Corrine Suwa-Kalani of Kurtistown. “As soon as she put on the headphones connected to the iPod, she began tapping her feet and singing the words to the songs.”
Mom was back even for those brief moments, noted Suwa-Kalani, adding that while dementia has slowly taken her mom’s memory, the essence of her spirit remains.
A University of Utah study, inspired by the Alive Inside documentary, confirmed what McGeehan and others have observed. The study found that personalized music programs appear to activate regions of the brain typically untouched by early Alzheimer’s disease and that music therapy may offer a new way to help with anxiety, depression and agitation in some patients.
But just as the charity was getting going, McGeehan’s efforts faltered. After distributing 38 iPods, McGeehan had to stop and regroup.
“I was doing this all by myself and burning out. I needed help and money to continue or this wasn’t going any further,’ she said. McGeehan took time off from the project to rethink strategy.
Last fall, McGeehan pitched iPods For the Elderly to 100 Women Who Care, a group that meets quarterly to review, select and support nonprofits. There, McGeehan met Beth Bohn, who signed on to volunteer and helped McGeehan align her charity with the North Kohala Community Resource Center 501 (c)3 nonprofit organization.
Two other women, Lisen Twigg-Smith and Marian Tompkins, volunteered to join the iPods For the Elderly team and the Clark Realty Community Foundation awarded a grant to iPods For the Elderly to distribute 50 iPods or mp3 players islandwide.
With the additional volunteers and funding, McGeehan feels she’s back on track and hopes to pursue larger grants and expand distribution beyond Hawaii Island.
“My vision is to give back to kupuna with memory loss the gift of precious memories through iPods For the Elderly, no matter where they live in the state.”
And to think this all began with movie night.