Pearl Leimbach sometimes struggles to remember the vibrant life she lived in Maryland and the people who now care for her in Palm Harbor.
She's 91 and suffers from dementia.
But when she slipped on a pair of headphones at the St. Mark Village nursing home on a recent afternoon, she instantly recognized the upbeat holiday tunes from her childhood.
"Oh, Christmas music!" said the woman once known as Toots, a smile spreading across her lips.
Researchers have long believed music can spark positive brain function in people with dementia. That's why, starting this month, a program known as Timeless Tunes is delivering free digital music players and headphones to nursing homes across the Tampa Bay region.
Volunteer leaders intend to bring MP3 players to all 70 nursing homes in Pinellas County over the next few weeks. They have taken devices to 54 nursing homes in Hillsborough and Polk counties, and given several hundred to family caregivers.
"Places that have been wanting to start a music project but haven't been able to figure out the funding can start right away because the music is already on there," said Stefanie Thompson, a program specialist for the Alzheimer's Association Florida Gulf Coast Chapter, which is spearheading the effort.
The program, which began last year, is bankrolled largely by an anonymous donor who pitched the idea to the local Alzheimer's Association chapter. His goal is to distribute 20,000 devices across Florida's Gulf Coast, Thompson said.
Each MP3 player comes preloaded with a selection of songs from a nostalgia-inducing genre. Popular choices include Broadway, Christmas, and, of course, Frank Sinatra and friends. Classic Mexican rancheras, Cuban music and black gospel tunes are also available.
Dr. Amanda Smith, medical director of the University of South Florida Health Byrd Alzheimer's Institute, said older songs are particularly powerful because dementia patients lose more recent memories first.
"It is why they might not recognize the spouse they've been with for 60 years," she said. "In their mind, they picture the young person they walked down the aisle with. Likewise, music from their youth brings up memories and emotions they can still connect to."
Smith has seen the program in action. Not all patients respond, she said. But those who do can have emotional responses.
"You put the headphones on and they smile from ear to ear," she said. "They might not be able to hold a conversation with you, but they know all of the lyrics to those songs."
Experts say music can do more than trigger a positive memory. It can help dementia patients manage their frustration and stimulate positive interaction with others. A 2014 documentary, Alive Inside, showed elderly people who were otherwise nonresponsive carrying out animated conversations after listening to songs from yesteryear.
The devices were a hit at St. Mark Village.
"The music is soothing," said Kimberly Glem, the care center's life enrichment director. "It helps them bring back early life memories. It also calms some of the symptoms of dementia."
Timeless Tunes isn't done. Program leaders hope to distribute MP3 players in Sarasota County next and, eventually, make deliveries at nursing homes from Naples to Crystal River.
"It's a big job," Thompson said. "But when you see the people smile and come alive, it's amazing."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Kathleen McGrory at [email protected] or (727) 893-8330. Follow @kmcgrory.