Newfoundland and Labrador's largest health authority is expanding a program that gives personalized music devices to people with dementia, allowing them play music tailored to their tastes and designed to elevate their quality of life. 

"We put the headphones on and after a while they become accustomed to it and it's familiar, and they're transported to a different place in their lives — a place where that music is important," said Sheila Williams, a musical therapist at Saint Luke's home in St. John's, one of three long-term care sites where Eastern Health's Music & Memory pilot program has been operating for the last 18 months. 

Williams told CBC News she's seen the program work wonders for residents of long-term care facilities. 

Sheila Williams, the musical therapist at Saint Luke's

Sheila Williams, the musical therapist at Saint Luke's Homes in St. John's. (CBC)

She said staff interview the residents and their families "to see what music reaches them," and then prepare customized playlists for individual iPods. 

The pilot project has also been running at St. Patrick's Mercy Home in St. John's and Harbour Lodge Nursing Home in Carbonear.

The program matches those living in long-term care facilities with their own personalized iPods that have music on them tailored to the resident's own tastes — with a specific focus on music that makes them feel calm and relaxed.

Eastern Health announced the expansion of the program at an event in St. John's earlier this week.

The program is based on the idea that people's brains are hard-wired to connect music with long-term memory. 

Research shows that for those suffering from Alzheimer's, dementia or other cognitive challenges, familiar music can trigger well-preserved memories enabling the listener to focus on the present moment and to regain a connection to others. 

The hope is that music therapy will result in mood improvement and enhanced verbal communication and physical activity.

iPod with headphones

Families and long-term care staff help to decide which music will be best for each individual resident's iPod.

Long-term care employees have reported various examples of how the program has been working since the pilot was launched. They include noticeable improvements to verbal skills, less aggressive behaviour from residents and even cases where residents have been seen singing and dancing while listening to their new iPods.

The next site identified for expansion of the Music & Memory program is the St. John's Long-Term Care Facility, anticipated in the spring of 2016.

Other sites in various stages of implementation are Chancellor Park Nursing Home in St. John's, and Dr. A. O'Mahony Memorial Manor in Clarenville.

A similar program was first launched in the United States in 2006, which led to health authorities throughout North America — including Eastern Health —developing their own.

The Music & Memory approach was the subject of the award-winning 2014 documentary film Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory.