May 23, 2018

A Place To Feel Smart Again | The Digital Shift

ljx150801webDigitalShift1Gerontologist Debby Dodds developed a tablet-based workshop program with the Santa Cruz Public Libraries, CA, for people with early-stage memory loss. She and library representatives will present on the pilot at LJ’s all-day virtual event The Digital Shift this October 14. In the run-up to the conference, LJ caught up with Dodds to learn more.

Why did you work with the library to create this program?

It was my capstone project for my master’s degree in gerontology. I was a member of the Friends of the [Santa Cruz] Library and had a good conversation with the librarian in charge. She put me in touch with the programs and partners manager, and we talked about the opportunity of using the library. Libraries and faith-based institutions are normative environments for older folks, as opposed to part of the aging services network (senior centers, agencies on aging, etc.). So it adds to the network in a nonstigmatized way. Part of that for the library is to provide a place for people in the community with memory loss to feel normal again. People are living at home longer, and there are lots of initiatives around dementia-friendly ­communities.

How does the program work?

It was designed for the dyad of the caregiver and someone with ­nonnormative memory loss. Participants are self-­identified. It occurs at the same time each week. Participants sign themselves up so they can come to one [session] or continue. We trained volunteers to work with guests in a quadrant of selected apps in activities that participants understand: music, life stories (reminiscing), games, and images. We use more than one area to give people a choice. People with memory loss often don’t get a lot of choice; people tell them what to do. So being able to come in and choose is empowering for them.

What apps do you use?

There are two that I think work really well. The first is Sing Fit; it is actually designed by music therapists for their [own] parents and the memory care market. They are part of an aging 2.0 accelerator and use it on a larger scale in retirement communities. On an MRI, music lights up your whole brain. Another one that’s incredibly easy to use is an app for storytelling, named Swaha. It simply allows you to narrate over pictures. It is the simplicity that works. Most older folks really don’t want to be on video. Their families often want them to, but when they look at [the videos] they don’t feel that’s who they are. Talking about stories in a narrative fashion over pictures and creating a digital narrative that you can send to your family is not only enjoyable while you’re doing it, it is still beneficial next week or next year, especially when the care recipients can’t remember those things. Showing them cherished pictures is particularly beneficial when you want to change the mood.

How did you assess the pilot?

We’ve had probably 50 different guests. We could judge it successful by the…demand. They tell us that it improved their mood. One of the great comments we got was that one of the [care recipients] told their caregiver, “Can we go back to the place that made me feel smart again?” Research says tablets are very engaging. We know they’re more engaged through gesticulation, laughter, singing, eye gaze. They feel like they’re doing something normal, learning something new, and doing something beneficial for their memory.

ljx150801webDigitalShift2One of the greatest things is seeing the family interact with them. We’ve seen people purchase iPads because of this. To provide them with applications that they can do in their own home in ways that are fun and easy to do changes the landscape of the caregiving relationship. It is really helpful for the caregiver to be able to enjoy what they’re doing. Often a care partner might carry the burden of communication. When we use the iPad, we’re focusing joint attention on an external device. A lot of that burden is relieved. Sometimes caregivers come and they completely check out; they’re tired. The polar opposite is the person who brings pages of pictures and stories and wants to learn the device and help them. One benefit we hadn’t really thought of when creating the program was how much the coaches enjoyed it.

We’ve discovered three elements that make the program work. It takes device training—we actually are doing that online now so we can do it in a remote location. It takes sensitivity training—you have to understand some of the elements of aging and elements of memory loss and how to communicate. And it takes specific understanding of the applications.

What did it take on the library side to make this happen?

The [library people] were patient; it took a year to develop. It wasn’t a funded project. The library had a couple of iPads for the special needs resource center so we used those and augmented them from the library budget; now we have six. The Friends paid for training and software subscriptions, speakers, and headphones. The last package I developed [cost] $1,000, which included training and equipment. We created individual logins for each [person] so their stories and photos don’t reside on the library equipment.

To hear more from Dodds and many more tech-inflected programs at The Digital Shift virtual event, register for free at

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz ( is Executive Editor of Library Journal.

Building Literacy-Rich Communities
Hosted by Library Journal and School Library Journal, Stronger Together is a national gathering of thought leaders and innovators from across the country who will share where and how partnerships between school districts and public libraries are having success. Join us May 10–12 at the University of Nebraska Omaha, as we explore the impact these collaborations are having on the institutions, communities, and kids they serve.
Maker Workshop
In this two-week online course, you’ll create a maker program that aligns with your budget and community needs, with personal coaching from maker experts—from libraries and beyond—May 23 & June 6, 2018.


  1. Robert Cagna says:

    This sounds like a great program. Congratulations on getting in started!