New program brings the opposite of dying—lifelong learning—to the Scotts Valley Library
Every day 10,000 people in the United States turn 65, and more than 10 percent of them suffer memory loss. By age 85, it’s 50 percent.
“That’s a lot of memory loss,” says former local Debby Dodds, who was first inspired to find computer programs to help the forgetful when her own mother began experiencing mental decline. The experience led her to develop a bold new program to help save memories before they fade—and it’s now in full swing at Santa Cruz Library’s Scotts Valley branch.
Called the TouchTEAM (Tablet Engaged Active Minds), the program uses iPads and apps to build bridges between those who are losing precious memories and the people who care for them.
“One of the biggest problems with memory loss is depression,” says Dodds, who has a master’s in gerontology from the University of Massachusetts. “When you lose storage and recall, people discount you. If you ask the same question several times, people think you don’t understand, even though often they do understand.”
Dodds bought her mother an iPad in 2010 and although her mother, now 90, couldn’t figure out how to do things like search or shop, Dodds found it to be an effective tool when they used it together. “It was annoying when she couldn’t figure out the functions,” says Dodds. “But then I realized it didn’t matter. We could still do wonderful things with it.”
First, Dodds noticed that her mother was forgetting times and dates for appointments, so she programmed the tablet to alert her mother to important events—something she could do remotely, too, thanks to iCloud. Then she began finding programs that brightened her mother’s life, helping her bring back old songs, photos and family memories.
“I have research that shows that games, music, life stories and images are important for people with memory loss, helping them do activities that are beneficial,” says Dodds. “They might not help them regain memories, but they stimulate them and keep them engaged.”
Every Monday from 10:30-11:30 a.m. at the Scotts Valley Library, volunteer mentors guide participants through TouchTEAM’s four-part program, which helps to store and restore memories using apps like Google Earth to visit old neighborhoods and SingFit to bring back old songs in a sort of personalized karaoke. Another program helps them tell stories and store pictures of their past to share with relatives and keep the memories fresh for later. Some play games like Words with Friends to stay sharp.
On a recent Monday there were a dozen people ranging in age from 60 to 93 using the iPads, and caregivers and relatives of all ages helping.
“This is the highlight of my week,” says Margie Kudrav, 71, of Aptos, who has suffered “chemo fog,” after being treated for blood cancer. She’s creating an oral and written history of her father’s work with Dr. Martin Luther King and she shares her tales at a table of four enrapt listeners.
“As I started working with tablets and memory loss, I realized what an amazing connection it was for them,” says Dodds, who is now in Spokane, Washington, where she plans to open a business called the Memory Cafe, similar to what’s being pioneered in Santa Cruz—a place where people can socialize and feel normal, despite their memory loss.
Dodds likes using the library because it feels familiar and friendly, rather than clinical or threatening. “We are a new breed of library,” Janis O’Driscoll, the county library’s manager of programs and partnership told her. “We want to reach out and provide a place and resources to connect.”
Denise Fritsch, who is in charge of recruiting and training volunteers for this and other programs at the library, says she’s inspired by the quote: “The opposite of dying is learning.”
That’s what was going on in the room in tables of two and four adults who seemed genuinely excited about using new technologies to capture old bits of their pasts. It was refreshing to see 90-year-olds tackling problems and solving them with the vigor of college students. Former aerospace engineer John Altman, 93, surfed the web enthusiastically and beamed as he played an online card game, even though he says offhandedly that he’s just doing it “to get out of the house.”
Getting people out of the house and involved in the world and with others is one of the program’s goals.
Dodd’s success stories include a Santa Cruz surfer with Parkinson’s disease who found his old coach on the Internet—a reunion that resulted in the coach becoming a caregiver for him.
Another was her mother, who recently got together with her two sisters and recorded songs they sang in three-part harmonies as kids.
“Music is one of those things that is amazing for people with memory loss,” says Dodds. “On an MRI it lights up the whole brain. Tune, beat, words, it hits so many different areas and lasts far beyond people’s cognition.”
Dodds realized that these programs don’t just benefit the person with memory loss, but the families and caregivers who will work with them in the future and have digital recollections of what they were today.
“It’s so powerful that it’s almost unbelievable,” says Dodds. “It crosses the bridge and lets us see the person behind the disease.”
PHOTO: Margie Kudrav, 71, of Aptos uses an iPad at a Santa Cruz library program for fun and to stir memories. BRAD KAVA