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Local Scout Using Music and AI to Bring Back Memories

Nirvan Silswal witnessed the transforming power of music when he visited his former neighbor at her retirement home. The experience, inspired the Life Scout’s Eagle Project.

Silswal grew up near a woman named Mrs. Bruce who treated him as her own grandson. One day, when visiting Mrs. Bruce, she had trouble remembering the Blue Valley North junior. That is until she got out her keyboard and started playing, “You’ll Never Know,” by Vera Lynn.

“She lit up. She was a completely different person and remembered everything about me,” said Silswal. “That spark that happened, that was the moment I realized I wanted to do an Eagle project that helps the elderly through music.”

Nirvan Silswal (right) and fellow Scouts, Rory Swenson (middle) and Emilio Orlanzzini (left), collect survey data at Village Shalom. 

The Life Scout chose to use his Eagle Scout project to create individualized music playlists for those experiencing Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

Silswal’s project has three phases: collecting data about seniors’ music preferences based on factors such as age, gender and cultural backgrounds; organizing the collected data to utilize artificial intelligence (AI) to generate personalized playlists; testing the software with those affected by Alzheimer’s and dementia, then recording the results.

Silswal, who wants to go to school for computer programming, started the first phase of his project this summer at Village Shalom. Using a questionnaire he developed, Silswal and a team of Scouts collected background and musical preference data from residents who reside in Village Shalom’s memory care neighborhoods.

Village Shalom proved to be a great fit for this project as the continuing care retirement community currently offers its residents the Music and Memory program. Music and Memory provides an iPod to each participant loaded with music tailored to their own music preferences and background. 

Peggy Lewis, a programs coordinator runs the program at Village Shalom. Lewis creates the playlists by meeting with the family members of each participant and conducting hours of extensive interviews to get an idea of the best music to put on the playlists.

Lewis thinks the software Silswal is working on could be revolutionary.

“As you lose memory, music is often the last thing to go. People can remember music and poems,” said Lewis. “Hopefully someday someone might be able to say ‘I was born in 1952, what might I like?’, or ‘I was born in Louisiana, what might I like?’ Nirvan is working on getting the big picture, it’s just wonderful.”

Silswal is still in the beginning stages of his project, but he has already attracted some national attention. Michael Bennett who created the documentary “Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory” reached out to Silswal about his project. Silswal had the opportunity to meet with Bennett in New York to discuss the ways music is tied to memories.

The high schooler’s goal is to get 1,000 survey responses before he starts working on the algorithm that will create the specialized playlists. The survey can be found on his Facebook page, Nirvan’s Eagle Project.

Silswal has two years to complete the project. For the final phase, he plans to return to Village Shalom and use the developed AI to create unique playlists for their memory care residents.

“It’s great to see the joy when someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia who can’t remember small details, remembers something because of the music,” said Silswal. “I really want to take the time to get the data and then we can take the time to create the program.”