Sharing the gift of music

Heather Latter

His lips curled into a soft smile; his eyes a little more full of the personality his wife remembers.
His toe gives a little tap as he listens to the John Cash tune playing through the headphones he wears.
Walter Laing’s life used to be full of music and now that he’s been reintroduced to the melodies he once adored, his wife, Irene, sees a glimpse of the man he once was.
“He would listen to music all day long,” Irene Laing noted, recalling how her husband used to sing with the a group called “The Irish Tavern Singers” based out of Winnipeg.
“They travelled coast-to-coast singing,” she said. “They were just an amateur group but they did a lot of entertaining.
“Music was really kind of his life—it was his big hobby.”
Her husband’s love for music came up several times in conversations with Mary O’Connor, the local Client Services co-ordinator for the Alzheimer Society of Kenora-Rainy River Districts.
So when O’Connor first heard about the start-up of the “The Music Project,” an initiative of the Alzheimer Society, and received an iPod, she knew exactly who would benefit from it.
“Walter always had the most beautiful smile and the first time we put it on, his eyes just lit up,” Laing enthused.
“It was just amazing.
“He was just so awed that the music was coming into his ears like that,” she added.
Laing noted there’s a mix of music on the iPod—some Johnny Cash, Frankie Lane—because those were his favourites, but also some Kenny Rogers and Irish music, as well.
“He sits and listens to music and I do other things,” she explained, saying she brings the loaned iPod along on her frequent visits to the special care unit at Rainycrest Long-Term Care here.
“He’ll start singing part of a song,” she added. “It’s really been kind of fun to watch him.”
Laing said the music adds a comfort to their visits since conversations between the two no longer are what they used to be.
“Having a visit with a person with Alzheimers is not the most stimulating part of your day and so it helps to give him the opportunity to listen to music while I’m here,” she reasoned.
“It’s my presence that is comforting, not our conversation,” Laing explained.
“So it sort of gives him a double whammy because he can listen to music and I’m here holding his hand.”
“It also helps the caregiver,” echoed O’Connor.
“They feel better about the visit and they feel like there is something they can do to help them.”
Having seen the benefits music has brought for the Laings, O’Connor is hoping the community will get on board and help bring the gift of music to other Rainycrest residents.
She’s asking people to donated any iPods they no longer are using.
There is a box at Sight & Sound on Scott Street where people can drop them off.
“Our goal is that we can use it like a library and lend them out to people who can really benefit them it,” O’Connor said.
In fact, she’s certain she would be able to loan out every iPod they get—noting all residents in the special care unit would benefit from one and even others at Rainycrest, too.
“So as many as we can get, the better it would be,” she stressed.
O’Connor said local groups or organizations even might consider fundraising toward the purchase of a new iPod to donate to the project.
The most inexpensive model—the iPod Shuffle—starts around $60, and is ideal for Alzheimer patients because it’s small and can clip right to their shirt so it won’t fall or get lost.
Monetary donations, which would be used to purchase new headphones, also would be appreciated and can be made by contacting O’Connor at 852-4767.
“Originally we thought we had to buy iTunes and that was something that we were going to look at,” O’Connor noted.
“But what’s happened is the Alzheimer Society of Ontario has a bunch of songs and they have sent them to us for free,” she enthused.
“So we have over 300,000 songs, so whatever music they want, we can get.
“All the caregivers need to tell me is who sings it and what song they want, and I can put it on the iPod.”
O’Connor said music is one of the earliest things people have—and that it really connects with people.
“Apparently it’s one of the last things to go,” said Laing.
“Music stimulates the brain,” O’Connor noted. “It gets the brain going, and that’s where they don’t talk but all of a sudden they sing along with a song.
“And it’s amazing the difference it makes for them and our main goal is improving the quality of life.”
“Whatever you can do to improve the quality of life, then of course you are going to do it,” agreed Laing.
For more information about “The Music Project,” call O’Connor at 852-4767.