Mike Gerhard is not letting the COVID-19 pandemic stand in the way of his decade-old project of using music to improve the lives of residents in area nursing care facilities.

When the doors to nursing homes and other facilities were closed last month to visitors to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, Gerhard, an associate professor of telecommunications and faculty advisor of Music & Memory, created a website to bring virtual visits to nursing home residents at Bethel Pointe Health and Rehabilitation Center.

A student and patient hugging

A Music & Memory volunteer, comforts a Muncie Alzheimer’s patient during a therapeutic music session.

The website currently offers four virtual visits. In those videos, Gerhard’s students share words of encouragement and sing songs, including:

  • “Jesus Loves Me”
  • “Amazing Grace”
  • “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”
  • “You Are My Sunshine”
  • “This Little Light of Mine”

"The students created videos, ranging from one to four minutes, in which they offer some encouraging words and sing to a nursing home resident,” Gerhard said. “They also incorporated a white board and other visuals, including pets. Residents love little kids, animals, and music.”

A nurse or other worker takes a tablet computer around to each isolated room to show each resident a brief video or two.

“The online visits are just a temporary measure during the pandemic, since family members and volunteers are currently locked out of all local long-term care facilities,” Gerhard said. “Electronic communication such as phone, FaceTime, Skype, and YouTube is currently the only way to reach residents — other than standing outside of window.

“The idea of video visits came to me earlier this month about the time Ball State was arranging for remote work and study,” he said. “It occurred to me that we could still visit the residents via e-communication – even though it would be indirect or vicarious. I also wanted to give my TCOM 101 students a chance to do something positive to help others during the pandemic. So, I offered them extra credit to create short videos. Service to others is always a great idea, but volunteering is especially important during a national emergency.“

Gerhard said the project’s basic mission is to provide individualized music playlists to the elderly, with special emphasis on those suffering from dementia.

"We believe that personalized digital music can greatly enhance the quality of life for many nursing home residents, especially those with cognitive disorders,” he said. “We also strive to build awareness for our cause and engage in effective fundraising.”

Ball State’s group is affiliated with Music & Memory, a nonprofit organization that brings personalized music into the lives of the elderly or infirm through digital music technology.

Gerhard plans to expand the new project during the course of the pandemic, adding a few dozen videos during the next few weeks.

“I’m not sure whether this will be a permanent part of the future, but it’s the best we can do for now,” he said. “Personal visits are still the best way to interact with most nursing home residents. The vulnerable elderly need gentle touches, hugs, and lots of in-person face-to-face contact.”