VOLUNTEER: Betsy Stephens works at the Hospice shop among other volunteer activities.

A COLORADO woman sharing her time between Denver and Whakatane has introduced Music & Memory to New Zealand, a programme that aims to bring personalised music to people emotionally isolated through conditions such as dementia.

Music & Memory was founded in 2010 by American Dan Cohen and was the subject of award-winning documentary, Alive Inside, which traced Cohen on his journey to help those with Alzheimer’s and other dementias “reawaken their souls through the simple, profound experience of listening to their favourite music”.

The film was the winner of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival’s United States documentary audience award and was hailed for portraying the healing power of music.

For Betsy Stephens, association with the programme began during her years of caring for her mother who had developed Alzheimer’s. Noting that her mother would “light up and tap her feet” when she heard music that had been part of her life, Betsy says she began looking for the best way to enable her mother to have personalised music as part of her everyday life.

“The positive impact that personalised music has on people with dementia is commonly understood now,” she says. “But a decade ago, it really wasn’t.” Researching the topic, which she says was still in its infancy at the time, Betsy came across the Memory & Music programme, and the discovery saw the beginning of her long involvement with the programme, on both a voluntary and a professional basis.

In her former role as executive assistant to the Health Facilities and Emergency Medical Services division of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Betsy was instrumental in the rollout of the programme in her state, and also began voluntary work to support the programme.

A major component of the programme is the certification of nursing homes or other care facilities such as hospitals, hospices, and adult day-care programmes, Betsy says.

Certification includes best practices training for staff, peer-to-peer advice and support, specialised web-based training programmes and discussion forums, and access to free music and old-time radio programmes. “There’s a wealth of additional resources and it’s the most beautiful training,” she says. “So much research has been put into it to support all aspects of the programme”.

SUNSHINE AND A PLATE: Betsy with Hospice volunteer co-ordinator Anna Meredith helps out at last year’s Sundown on the Wharf fundraiser. Photos supplied

So committed is Betsy to bringing the programme to New Zealand, she is opting to fund certification facilities in New Zealand for an initial three-year pilot project, and, she says, beyond, if the programme is considered successful.

Having received an unexpected inheritance from her parents – “not a lot, but enough” – she says she can’t think of a better way of using the money than to bring the Music & Memory programme to a country that doesn’t have it.

With Music & Memory now serving over 75,000 users throughout the US, Europe, Israel and Australia, Betsy says that, informally, the programme has shown to increase levels of engagement and socialisation in rest home residents, to increase attention levels and cooperation, and to decrease “sundowning” – a term used to describe the agitation and disorientation commonly experienced by dementia suffers around dusk. She says care staff also often regain valuable time previously lost to behavioural issues.

Two major US, federally-funded research programmes are now under way, both focused on the impact of personalised music on dementia, mood and behaviour.
One, a three-year study by the UC Davis School of Nursing, is looking at how the Memory and Music programme can statistically and clinically reduce consumption of anti-psychotic, anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications, as well as its impact on other issues such as pain, and falls. Data has been collected from 300 California nursing homes.

The other is a National Institute of Ageing study being conducted by Brown University, taking a closer look at why the Music & Memory programme works, and how best to implement personalised music in a way that such programmes are sustained.

Currently living in Whakatane, a situation she hopes will become permanent, Betsy is meeting with community groups in the Eastern Bay to spread awareness of the programme.

“At this point I’m not meeting directly with rest homes and so on because I don’t yet know whether I’ll get residency and be able to personally see things through.” Rather, she says she is hoping to meet with service groups such as Lions Clubs, Quota, U3A, and Eastern Bay Villages to talk about the programme so that any group or individual who would like to become an ambassador for the programme can do so.

Betsy says taking early retirement in Denver to bring Music & Memory to New Zealand grew from a number of factors. Motivated to spend her time bringing the programme to countries where it was not yet operating, she says New Zealand had stood out as her first choice.

“I’ve always been drawn to New Zealand, and I also have an older friend of a friend living in Whakatane. And I wanted to live in a small town again. Whakatane is the same-sized town as a town I spent many years in.” Though she says she wasn’t ready for the feeling she experienced when she arrived into the country. “I felt like this was home,” she says. “I had an overwhelming feeling that this is where I am meant to be.”

Awaiting the decision on her future, Betsy isn’t wasting any time. Having always seen her main role in life as being of service to her community, nothing has altered with her change of country. The former journalist, travel consultant, event planner and health department public worker says she has always viewed herself primarily as a “public servant” and life has always included voluntary work for her community.

It seems Whakatane is now benefiting from that. Betsy works on a voluntary basis for the library, helping to run the programme that keeps house-bound readers in books, for the Hospice Shop, and for Arts Whakatane, helping with its summer pop-up gallery and with public events. And in every spare moment, she shares with others the benefits of the Music & Memory programme, hoping that awareness of the programme will lead to its implementation.

“I don’t want to be that American woman who comes here with her big ideas. I just want to put the information out to anyone who is interested, and let it grow organically.”
Information on Memory & Music and registrations of interest can be found at website musicandmemory.org.au.

Lorraine Wilson