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The magic of memories (05/14/2014)
By Amelia Wedemeyer

     Photo by Amelia Wedemeyer

. Sally Mathews Inglett and Chris "Kai" Hanson display their original idea for Alzheimer's and dementia patients, which helps users connect to the positive memories of their pasts.

For Sally Mathews Inglett, watching her mother Nancy slip into the successive stages of Alzheimer’s Disease was like sitting through a long, melancholy film — she was able to witness the progression of Nancy’s dementia, but she was unable to do anything except sit and comfort her mother the best she could. That is until Inglett, who is a Winona State University (WSU) student and WSU Information Technology (IT) Services employee, remembered something her mother had always enjoyed: the sound of birds, specifically cardinals. So Inglett bought a cuckoo clock that mimicked the sound of cardinals chirping, and brought it to her mother. Within moments, Nancy responded.

“She couldn’t see or talk, but she [could hear the cuckoo clock and] responded to it,” Inglett remembered. “She was in diapers and [used a] feeding tube for 10 years, but she responded to it.”

Encouraged by her own mother’s attentiveness to the once-familiar sound, Inglett decided to pursue what she dubbed “the cuckoo clock original inspiration.” The idea was to create a type of software that displays familiar images and/or plays music, which in turn ultimately soothes and calms the person with dementia who is using it. To start her project, Inglett knew she would need others, and recruited fellow WSU student and IT employee Chris “Kai” Hanson, as well as her own son, Nathan Snyder, a recent WSU graduate at the time.

“I needed a team because I didn’t have the skills to do the [computer] code, [as well as] other things,” Inglett explained. “That’s when I brought Kai in. [He’s] our developer, and does all the coding. Nathan is the one handling the business aspects, and I do more of the research and development side of it.”

“Sally pretty much covers anything else that we need,” Hanson added.

The group got to work and founded their startup company, MEternally, LLC, and quickly began the daunting process of trial and error with Inglett’s initial idea, which they ultimately named Memory Modules. “[We] went from something that was a large project with many facets, to something fine-tuned,” Hanson explained of the work, which was to create something that would help people with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia as their symptoms progressed.

One of the first signs that they had a product with potential came after the MEternally group entered Microsoft’s student technology competition, aptly named the Imagine Cup. Even though the team did not make it to the final rounds, the group received positive reinforcement of their Memory Modules with a top 50 finish.

“Oh my God, to say that we made top 50 in [Microsoft’s Imagine Cup] competition — that was very inspiring,” Inglett said of the experience.

Continuing with their work, the group encountered various bits of information and suggestions from experts that continuously modified the Memory Modules, and ultimately helped to create the product’s most current form. “We went through some major do-overs,” Inglett testified. “As we got to a certain point and talked to professionals, we found out that it would be more meaningful if we did ‘this’ or ‘that.’”

After visiting an Alzheimer’s unit at the Mayo Clinic, the group learned that they had to be careful with colors because people with dementia often experience depth perception. Along the way, as they visited various dementia units at different hospitals, they also learned that the soothing photos their program displayed on a loop would have to move more slowly, that touch screen would work well, and that overall, simplicity was key. “The people with Alzheimer’s couldn’t tell us [what worked and what did not], but the people who work with them could,” Inglett said.

Currently, Memory Modules allows a user to have several “galleries,” which serve as photo albums that display a never-ending loop of pictures (and sometimes sound). Each gallery has its own theme that is somehow related to the user. “Say you grew up on the East Coast,” Inglett explained. “[Your gallery could include] pictures of the ocean, the sound of gulls — things that are regional and meaningful to you.”

MEternally has created Memory Modules galleries with basic themes, such as scenery and animals, to which users are able to relate. While a dementia patient might not be able to tell what the image or sound is, they can still associate the good feelings it brings them. As Hanson elaborated, “They might not remember that they had a dog, but they remember the feelings it gave them.”

Recently, MEternally has forayed into more personal elements, such as decades and ages from the past. “Early teens to early adulthood,” Hanson said of the most popular timeframe for users. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic told the group that dementia patients enjoy going back to those years because “those were the best times.” Personal photos can be used to trigger positive emotions for dementia patients, as well as happy memories for family members.

“I wish I would have had something like [Memory Modules] because I think I would have spent even more time [with my mother] and would have remembered the good times,” Inglett said. “It’s a constant reminder of who that person is.”

Right now, Memory Modules runs on a Windows tablet, though Inglett and Hanson ultimately have plans to convert to a software that allows the program to run on a television set, any type of tablet, and through an online application. The only downside to the technology Memory Modules would like to use is the high cost, which has proven to be the biggest hurdle

“It’s all been out of our pockets,” Inglett explained. “Little pieces of student loans, money from selling things — we have thousands of dollars into it. I brought on a fourth partner, my younger sister, who is an accountant, and she threw a couple thousand dollars into it. We’ve used a lot of [the technology accessories] as we’ve been able to buy them.”

Still, even with the impending financial issues and a failed Kickstarter campaign, Inglett and the rest of MEternally are determined to have their Memory Modules used at nursing homes and hospitals. “We want so bad to get this off the ground because we really think we can help people,” Inglett said.

MEternally will have the chance for more fundraising when it is featured on Crowdfunder this fall on the Fox affiliate in the New York/Toronto area.

To learn more about MEternally’s Memory Modules visit http://www.MEternally.com/. 


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