GreyMatters Promo Video from Jennifer Rozbruch

BridgingApps recently interviewed Jenny Rozbruch, Founder, CEO & Designer of GreyMatters. The app was inspired by Jenny’s late grandmother, Frieda, who suffered from advanced vascular dementia for over six years, and received care from her family. Despite Frieda’s loss of short term memory & independent functioning, Jenny witnessed how her long term memory and spirit could be drawn out dramatically through simple activities like looking through photos from her youth, listening to familiar music, and hearing her life story told back to her. Jenny set out to create a product that would make it easier to tap into these remaining–yet often hidden–abilities in people with dementia, and help family members of all ages connect with their loved ones.

1. Tell us a little about your course of study in graduate school.

I attended the School of Visual Arts MFA Design program in New York City, which has a unique focus on design and entrepreneurship. For the final thesis project, students design products or ventures that are viable for the marketplace. Greymatters began as my thesis project in the program.

2. Describe your relationship with your grandmother and how the symptoms of Alzheimer’s began to affect her memory and ability to connect with you and other family and friends.

When my grandmother first started showing signs of dementia, she was living by herself. My parents brought her to live with them in their apartment to take care of her. I witnessed her transition from independent and capable to slowly needing more and more care – she was losing her short-term memory, communication skills, and ability to do most things on her own.

3. What methods or strategies did you use to try to connect with your grandmother?

I really took cues from my mom, who had an amazing ability to connect with my grandmother – she would play Yiddish music and sing with her, tell her stories from her childhood and look through old photos with her. Seeing my grandmother’s amazing reactions to these activities is what helped me to connect with her better, and inspired the idea for an app that combined all of these features in one place.

4. Tell us a little about your experience with technology, beginner, advanced user, etc.

I’ve always tried to keep up with technology though I wouldn’t say I was an advanced user. Actually, my background in design was in print – specifically children’s books – and it wasn’t until I got to SVA that I learned all about interaction design and app design. In a lot of ways I think the app really pulls from both experiences.

5. Describe the process of how your idea evolved onto the platform of a mobile device that you chose.

I got the idea for the app in an interaction design class while studying at SVA. Although it sounded totally contrary to design a mobile app for people with dementia, I realized it was actually an ideal medium, especially given the ease of touch screen interactions, ability to combine many activities in one easy place as well as upload & store personal media. And the tablet is really the perfect device for an aging audience given the large screen size and portability. This medium also works well given how tech savvy Baby Boomers have become (and these are typically the caregivers purchasing the app to use with their parents or loved ones).

The goal of the app is to improve quality of life for people with dementia and their caregivers, as the condition is incredibly hard on both groups in different ways. It aims to help draw out long term memories and communication skills in people with dementia, help family members of all ages connect with their loved ones more easily, and generally help families to experience more joyful moments together. Our hope is to make the day-to-day just a little bit easier and better. With a strong belief that people with dementia are “still here,” GreyMatters aims to tap into the abilities that remain to keep individuals engaged and connected.

7. Did you encounter resistance from your grandmother to try it?

No, not at all. Certainly time of day was important and she responded better in the morning and early parts of the day before sun downing or exhaustion. But by the time I started working with her she was quite advanced in her dementia and she relished any time spent with her family, especially when she was engaged in a meaningful way.

8. Describe how you introduced the technology to your grandmother.

My mom had already been using the iPad to show her pictures of the family and play music, and I think she didn’t really question what the technology was at that point, she was just happy to look and be engaged.

9. Describe family and friends’ reactions to the idea of using this technology.

I initially encountered some skepticism from those who weren’t as familiar with dementia, wondering how someone with memory loss would be able to use the app. But everyone who had their own experiences caring for someone with dementia, or really any aging relative, was absolutely thrilled about the idea and couldn’t wait to use it. Of course, the app is intended to be used by a caregiver in coordination with the person with dementia, especially as the condition progresses. However, GreyMatters’ accessible design makes it inclusive of those with memory loss and offers a feeling of active participation even if a caregiver is the one controlling the app.

10. How does the app work? What are the main features?

The app is essentially an interactive life storybook, paired with music and games, that helps people with dementia and their families preserve yesterday’s memories and share today’s joyful moments. Families can upload personal photos along with text, voice narration and music to represent memories from their loved one’s life, which they can look through together in the My Life section. We also offer pre-loaded universal content in the My World section, such as entertainers, historical figures and pop culture from the 1930s, ’40s & ’50s. All of this content can be viewed alongside a personalized music playlist to help draw out memories, or can be experienced in the form of a memory card game. Another key feature is the ability to record a video of your loved one’s reaction to the app at any time with the quick press of a button – whether a sparked memory or simply a smile – and then share these “new memories” with other family members.

11. How do you think this app differs from what is currently on the market today, what sets it apart?

GreyMatters differs from others on the market today in that every aspect of the app was designed with the specialized needs of the person with dementia and caregiver in mind. Using my background in graphic design, I tailored everything from the scale, color and text style to the simplicity of interactive elements on the screen for this audience. In addition, while there are other apps that contain certain elements of GreyMatters, ours is the only one that combines all of these features together in a seamless and accessible way.

12. Whom is the app appropriate for, what kind of users do you envision benefiting from it?

GreyMatters is primarily aimed at helping individuals with dementia (or other types of cognitive decline/memory loss) and their loved ones and caregivers. The app is intended to be a collaboration between the person with dementia and caregiver (most often the caregiver will be the one driving the app) and I truly see both groups benefiting from it. In addition, I think GreyMatters is a great way to get older and younger generations connected – tech savvy grandchildren can use the app with their grandparents and guide them through it, as well as learn more about their loved one’s life and family history through the experience.

13. Describe how your grandmother has benefitted from the use of this app.

My grandmother unfortunately passed away in November 2013 before the app was finished, but I was able to use early prototypes with her. As you can see in our video, she had moments of clarity and connection with the app – I believe that it helped her feel connected to herself, her memories, and her family. I’m just glad that I got to see her experience moments of joy in her final years despite her condition – that’s all I could have asked for. And that brought joy to our whole family.

14. Describe how family and friends have benefitted from the use of this app.

I’ve gotten wonderful responses about the app from people who have used it so far. Caregivers have seen their loved ones light up with excitement from content that connected with them. Families have really enjoyed the ability to share video recordings of their loved one with other family members who live far away, so they too can witness the amazing moments of clarity and joy. And whether or not the person’s memory is always sparked, it’s more about the positive feeling family members have from sharing this activity.

15. How will you measure success with your app and how can the disability community help?

We will measure the success of the app by how many people it helps! We would love assistance in spreading the word so that more people know that it’s an available tool for download and try it out with their loved ones. We are also trying to reach more care facilities, as the app can be used with larger groups or one-on-one with multiple user profiles. In general, we greatly appreciate any feedback we get so that we can keep making the app better.

16. What is next for you and for GreyMatters?

Right now we are gathering feedback from users on this first version of the app – listening to what works well and what could be better – and figuring out our next steps for improving the app. The next two major developments include making it easier for people to share their created story pages with family members, as well as exploring an Android version.

Click on the link below for our review of GreyMatters: Reaching Beyond Dementia:

https://insignio.bridgingapps.org/apps/e5b97a66-d73f-4a48-a721-6b353eba2a60

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