Alive Inside is an award-winning documentary about music's capacity to reawaken our souls. It explores the positive impacts of music therapy on people living with Alzheimer's. In one scene, a nursing home worker puts an iPod shuffle on a 90-year-old Alzheimer's patient who had been uncommunicative. When the man hears his favorite music, he begins to sing and dance.
The scene inspired Emily Keller, a design student at Umeå Institute of Design in Sweden, and the three other women working on a project with her.
"This scenario is very common, with music transforming an individual from being isolated and catatonic to 'alive inside,'" Keller said.
After extensive research, Keller wanted to create a music therapy platform with consideration of all of the needs of an Alzheimer's patient and their families, friends, and caregivers. So she and three other people in a master's program, Miglė Padegimaitė, Lina Trulsson, and Darja Wendel, built Remind, a digital music player that connects with a smartphone app, during a two-week project.
Music is an incredible experience. It reminds us of important times in our lives and the emotions we associated with those times. According to the Alzheimer's Foundation of America, music can be very powerful in sparking memories for people with the disease, even in the late stages. The foundation encourages people to use music through all stages of the disease. For instance, in early stages, dancing and traveling to various venues and concerts; in middle stages, use as background music to enhance their mood; or in late stages, play old collections of favorites and perform sing-alongs.
In 2014, about 5.2 million people were living with Alzheimer's disease, according to the Alzheimer's Association. Almost two-thirds of people over 65 with it were women. These numbers are expected to increase in the coming years as the baby boomer generation ages.
"To me, design is about making the technology meaningful by identifying and addressing the needs of these people," Keller said.
Remind's look was inspired by a smooth stone that invites touch, and it has a very minimal, user-friendly interface, that is extended through the mobile and web application.
"Everyone loves iPods, but someone with Alzheimer's listens to music very differently, so there needs to be something designed specifically for them," Keller said. "Through sketching, interviews, and prototyping we came up with our Remind concept."
The music player is used by the patient and the song library is managed through the app by their family members or caregivers, someone who has knowledge of their favorite music and what songs played a significant role in their life.
The mobile app can be synced with the music player so that when the person has visitors, a family member can play "their song" if their loved one does not recognize their face.
"For example, I remember my grandparents singing songs to each other every morning, the same one over and over. So that song is something that could be used to trigger memories," Keller said.
Families or caregivers can also program different songs to be played at different times of the day, like relaxing music to combat "sundowning," which is late-day confusion, or their favorite upbeat sing-along songs for social times. Meanwhile, the family can stay connected by checking out the statistics such as listening habits. And when the patient is alone, the device acts as a companion, with an ambient glow inviting them to play.
Music therapy is important for Alzheimer's patients because it boosts brain activity. It can shift their mood, reduce stress and agitation, and stimulate more positive interactions.
Remind is up for the Interaction Awards in February as a finalist in the Empowering category, and the concept has generated a lot of buzz at a time when technology — particularly apps and wearables — is being used to tackle real healthcare issues.
The team hasn't proved the product yet, since it is still a concept, but they are continually testing it. With all of the positive feedback she has received, she said she thinks there is great potential for a "not so heavily medicated future for people with Alzheimer's." She wants to help bring awareness that a simple song could possibly bring back your grandmother for a while.
"If it does work, then I think it could be worthwhile forming these music-memory associations at the earliest stages of dementia," she added.
Music is proven to have a profound impact on this disease because it triggers so many memories. "Music has been used as a therapy forever, but I still think that there's a better way to experience it," Keller said. "Apparently smell has the power to evoke memories as well, but that's another project."
Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.