The 17-bed Special Care Unit at the Idaho State Veterans Home is always full. “It’s an alpha male environment,” says Oni Kinberg, LCSW, Director of Social Work for the Boise veterans care community. The residents tend to be combat-trained World War II and Korean vets, some with significant dementia who don’t respond to much around them.
That’s where Music & Memory fits in. Oni recalls one vet, a man who had served on a submarine and had also sustained football head injuries in his youth; he barely reacted to his surroundings. His wife was his high school sweetheart, and she knew how much he loved Johnny Cash. So Oni set up a playlist and gave him an iPod with headphones.
“He’d tap his feet,” says Oni. “When we’d take the headphones off, we noticed that he was listening to the music playing in the background. He’d start singing. Having his own playlist stimulated him to be more alert. Even the staff were surprised. They’d tell me ‘Oni, he’s listening to music!’”
The vet died a few months later. But Oni has no doubt that the Johnny Cash playlist enhanced his quality of life to the end. He’s seen plenty of evidence in the three years since the Idaho State Veterans Home became the first long-term care community in the state to earn MUSIC & MEMORY® Certification. Active in the statewide ICARE coalition, a network of about 90 Idaho nursing homes, Oni promotes Music & Memory as a highly effective way to foster person-centered care.
Relaxation and Respite for Veterans
Memory care units, long-term care communities and hospitals that serve veterans face a unique mix of challenges. Populations are predominantly male, many of whom have experienced war firsthand. Depression, PTSD, alcohol and drug dependency, and other mental health conditions occur at a higher rate than among the general population. Personalized music playlists can help the veterans to relax and find a welcome, peaceful respite.
For those in veterans hospitals, Music & Memory can help to make an institutional stay feel more personal. “We have a lot of veterans in our hospital who are waiting a year for placement,” says Anne Johnson, LCSW, Caregiver Support Coordinator at the San Francisco VA Medical Center. “Many have dementia and need a nursing home that will accept residents with behavioral Issues. So our inpatient service Is trying to find ways to improve the lives of folks who are stuck here.”
Many Adaptations in Veterans Care Settings
In addition to her full-time responsibilities, Anne volunteers in the Social Work Department to bring Music & Memory to patients. She draws on two years of experience with the personalized music program, based on her work at her previous position at the San Francisco VA Community Living Center. There she learned how beloved music can play an important role in palliative care, an adaptation she has introduced to the VA Medical Center.
She recalls the case of a patient who adored classical music. “His wife told me that her husband needed Mozart,” says Anne. His favorites included the string quartets and The Marriage of Figaro. She loaded the music onto an iPod and hooked it up to a speaker in his room. “He died listening to Mozart. It was a much better death. The staff relaxed, too.”
At the Idaho State Veterans Home, Oni Kinberg has used personalized playlists as well as classical music on speakers to improve the dining room experience. A noisy, restive environment during meals was causing some residents to avoid mealtime. “When people are listening to their own headphones or classical music on the speakers, it’s a lot calmer,” he says. “We were able to readjust the environment.”
Oni and staff have also “data mined” residents’ playlists to discover who have similar interests, to create small music appreciation groups. Staff play shared musical favorites on speakers, as well as music videos on a big screen. Not only did a group of country music lovers enjoy seeing and hearing Loretta Lynn on a YouTube video; the music formed the basis for creating a support group.
Hoping to ease residents out of their isolation, Oni has purchased splitters to encourage sharing. “I teach volunteers and spouses to listen together when they visit residents. Hit pause and discuss what you’ve both heard and the associated memories.”
Crucial Support from Veterans Groups
Fellow veterans have been an important source of support for the Idaho State Veterans Home. Speaking to a group of POW-MIA bikers, whose motto was “No Vets Left Behind,” Oni explained how Music & Memory can help to relieve the endemic boredom of nursing home life for vets who spend a lot of time alone between visits. “They raised and donated $10,000,” he says, enough to purchase 90 iPods, more than 100 headphones, and iTunes cards worth $500.
Anne Johnson envisions Music & Memory as the perfect vehicle for bringing together younger and older vets. “It’s such a great, feel-good program,” she says. “I would love to see younger vets creating playlists for older vets. That would be so much fun!”
Patience and Persistence Pay Off
While it takes patience and persistence to start a Music & Memory program within the inevitable bureaucracy of state and federal veterans facilities, Anne says the effort is well worth it. “We spoke with a number of VA’s to discover the lessons they learned,” she says. “Don’t be afraid of obstacles. It took us a good year to establish our program.
“I love helping people have an experience that’s not about being sick,” she adds. “This gives you the opportunity to talk about a time when the person was young, before he was confronted with so many health issues. That’s something powerful.”
Oni Kinberg agrees. “Music & Memory gives you an avenue for creating a personal connection. It serves as a backdoor to person-centered care.” he says. “Music is part of who we are. Everyone can relate.”
Founded in 2010, MUSIC & MEMORY® is a non-profit organization that brings personalized music into the lives of people with cognitive or physical conditions through digital music technology, vastly improving quality of life.