Last year, Michaela Morra watched a loved one slowly lose her life to the ravages of dementia.
First it was the little things, then he was unable to recognize his family. Soon he became unable to care for himself and had to move to a nursing home.
As difficult as dementia is for the patient, it is also painful for the family members left behind – but inspired by his uncle’s illness, the Aurora 12th grader set out to learn more and to make a difference for others living with the same condition.
Morra’s “Music Can Awaken the Brain” won top honors in a pitch competition held by Pickering College. A student at Newmarket Independent School for more than 14 years, Morra’s project was part of her Capstone Project, an integral component of Pickering College’s (PC) Global Leadership Program, which tasks students with identifying a far-reaching and to seek practical solutions. .
Music Can Awaken the Brain has focused on “improving the quality of life for dementia patients through music therapy, developing a sustained music therapy student volunteer program where they create music playlists on donated devices that stay with the patients.
“I wanted to learn more about the disease, so in grade 11 I chose to study dementia in my sociology, anthropology and psychology class and discovered the benefits of music therapy in improving the quality lives of people with dementia,” says Morra. “The research I found showed it reduced agitation, depression, and the use of antipsychotic drugs.
“I also discovered a barrier that the use of music therapy has for health costs: the purchase of the devices, whether they are MP3 players or headphones, and the work that the nurses or the people in the hospital should download a playlist of 100 songs to their devices, which took me about 2.5 hours to do per device My action plan was to create a volunteer program at my school in where students would organize a campaign to donate devices, partner with healthcare professionals working with dementia patients living in the community, to get information to create a personalized playlist and put back to the individual.”
Some of the music that particularly struck a chord with the patients were tunes with particular resonance to the listener, including melodies they heard when they were young and even songs played at their weddings.
“I contacted community organizations and local hospitals to see if anyone would be interested in my volunteer program,” Morra explains. “The pandemic kind of caused the operation to stop, but I was able to test the process myself and partner with the hospital and other volunteers I had. The feedback was unbelievable: for the patients, it reduced agitation, depression, taking antipsychotic medications and it increased their food intake, which surprised me.
“The main thing [the volunteers] said it was a very rewarding process to know that they have potentially helped someone with dementia improve their quality of life in our own community. I will always hold this in my heart as I go off to college [to pursue] science, whether it’s health care or rather psychology. I feel like I’m definitely going to always carry it with me and I’m going to get devices and download them all summer long and bring them to hospitals.
Emma Zhang, a 12th grade student, also plans to pursue a post-secondary career in science this fall.
Zhang’s capstone project was a finalist in the same pitch competition, but its focus was both sporting and environmental. In her ‘Save the Geese, Save the Food Web’ project, Emma created an artwork using 1,630 broken feather birds used in the game of badminton to raise awareness that these feathers are plucked from live poultry .
“My project is trying to get more people to use plastic birdies instead of feather birdies,” says Zhang, an Aurora resident and badminton player herself. “I played with feather birdies for 11 years and realized I had to change when I stepped on a feather that had been hit by the birdie, slipped on it and sprained my ankle. It gave me time to think: why are there so many feather birds on the ground? People know that these feathers are made of goose and no one realizes the seriousness of the problem.
Through the collection of 1,630 broken birdies, Zhang created a large birdie designed to raise awareness of alternatives.
“Plastic still pollutes the environment, but feathered birds harm geese, which are alive when the birds are produced,” she says.