Weekend project: Make a dementia-friendly music player

Summary: Try making an MP3 player for your loved one. It’s probably easier than it looks, and it could bring some real joy.

Y’all probably figured by now I’m totally sold on the power of music in caregiving. It’s one thing that can connect with and engage a dementia-ridden brain when few other things can.

But I’m also into tech toys, and I enjoy tweaking computers to do what I want them to do. One device I rigged up a few years ago was a music player using a Raspberry Pi microcomputer. It’s plugged in to my stereo, and it’s pretty straightforward. Power it up, and it plays mp3’s off a flash drive and into the stereo. The Pi package isn’t much bigger than a pack of cigarettes, and it makes almost zero dent on my power bill even though it’s on for weeks at a time.

So then I saw this on the dqmusicbox.com site, and I thought: Great minds think alike. A guy named Ross Porter put together an old-school music player that has two knobs and one headphone jack, and some versions look pretty cool.

Here’s what Porter says:

“My dad could no longer operate a CD player or iPod. But he could use the music player that I designed and made for him, because it operates like a familiar two-knob radio. I was inspired to make this by the documentary Alive Inside which shows the profound joy felt by some people with dementia when listening to their favorite music.”

In his site Porter includes full construction details, using prefab wooden components for the case and the Raspberry Pi. The electronics will run you about $60.

The prefab case goes for $30-60, depending on whether you want to go plain or fancy, but you can get it done for almost nothing if you know anything about 3D printing – which I don’t.

From what I get from the instructions, installing the software seems drop-dead simple. Download the file, copy it over to the Raspberry Pi micro-SD card, then good to go. You’d transfer the music from a computer (MP3 format is fine) onto a flash drive. In truth, I would probably have more difficulty assembling the wood casing than I would the guts.

Here’s what one reader said after building the kit:

“I recently assembled a dqmusicbox per your instructions – and it just . worked. Yesterday I turned over my incarnation of the box to my father. It has been a long time since I saw such an emotional reaction from him. I let him at it without explanations at all, and he made it work without instructions. … Some of his favorites triggered immediate responses – I should have filmed it. — Ketil”

I’m impressed.

Here’s my own Raspberry Pi rig, hooked up to the stereo. Not as sexy, but functional.

How music makes the brain come alive

I saw the documentary Alive Inside at a caregiver’s conference a few years ago. It was originally produced in 2014. Here’s a piece of the documentary, and it’s just amazing:

I’m a musician as well as a caregiver, and I’ve seen firsthand how music can unlock some memories. Even to the very end I noticed how with a little musical prompting Dad was able to remember song lyrics and sing along. To this day, music is my secret weapon. Once I find out what my client is into (classical, bluegrass, pop, Celtic) I can help get a grin out of him.

The Music & Memory organization hooks seniors up with iPods and headphones. Myself, I’m a little more old school. On the job, Pandora is my friend. The phone app gets heavy play, but any streaming music service works.

So many questions: Matching a caregiver with a patient

This article came out a few years ago, but it’s a decent read and a good conversation starter.

While skills count for a lot, so much of a good caregiver/recipient match is harder to quantify. It sure isn’t something you’d find on a questionnaire. It’s almost like choosing a potential spouse; an I-know-it-when-I-see-it thing.

So when choosing a potential caregiver (or client) you’ll end up asking a lot of questions. And maybe just sitting down with the person and getting acquainted.

From the article:

Ask lots of questions … for instance, does the person who will be cared for have certain pet peeves that can’t be tolerated? Does he or she feel more comfortable with a man or a woman working in this very crucial job? How about likes and dislikes? Do the two people have enough in common?

In addition, is there a style of care that is preferred? For instance, does the client feel better having a helicopter caregiver or someone who is not always hovering around when there’s nothing to be done at that moment?

Basic chemistry.

If, say, you’re vetting caregivers for a loved one, the author suggests having the candidate sit down with the person. See how they get along, how they relate. They’re going to be working together in close quarters, so the chemistry has to be there.

It may not be over after all …

So I’m back in South Carolina, getting re-established after three years as a family caregiver. Got a decent little gig working for the city and everything.

Except …

This is at the city yard where I start work, and I ride around in one of these trucks all day. Sometimes I even get out of the truck and do something constructive. It’s a city job, y’know.

But the billboard … you know that hit me right away.

Guess that means something.

Today I put together a resume and started throwing it out among some home care agencies. Maybe the caregiving thing isn’t over yet.