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Music making a difference at New Richmond nursing homes

Deerfield resident Delver Matter (center) listens to music on an iPod on Jan. 30, while Jackie Waalen (left) and Keenan Luke help him use the device. (Photo by Jordan Willi) 1 / 2
Volunteer Keenan Luke helps out at the Deerfield on Jan. 30, by uploading CDs onto a computer in order to download them onto iPods for the residents. (Photos by Jordan Willi)2 / 2

For many people, listening to certain songs brings back fond memories of the past, like our high school prom, our first kiss or the day our children were born.

According to Dan Cohen, the executive director of Music & Memory, listening to music from their youth had the same effect on dementia patients when he brought iPods to residents at various nursing homes. The Music & Memory organization has now implemented personalized iPod programs in hundreds of nursing homes across the country, including 100 nursing homes in Wisconsin and both the Deerfield and the St. Croix County Health Center in New Richmond.

“One hundred nursing homes in Wisconsin with dementia patients were provided with iPods and headphones. So right now, we have received 15 iPods for our memory care residents and our task is to download the specialized music that each resident likes,” Deerfield Resident Services Director Jackie Waalen said. “This program was founded in 2010 and he found some research that said using these iPods would help with the challenges and the behaviors of people with dementia by getting them back into their times of music.”

The two facilities had to meet certain criteria and go through a long process to qualify for the program, including having a certain number of residents with moderate to severe dementia and meeting standards for size and quality.

“They chose 100 nursing homes out of the state and then picked 10 of those to do a closer study with,” St. Croix Health Center activities director Cindy Prokash said. “We also had to become licensed by attending a three-day teleconference with the people running the program. Once all of that was done, we started to put together a list of the residents who would be getting the iPods and tried to figure out what music they liked.”

The grant applications were due last August and those selected were given the 15 iPods, headphones and iTunes gift cards to help start their music collection.

“We first had to apply for the grant and then they chose those 100 nursing homes,” Waalen said. “We also had to guarantee that we would have 15 residents who would be qualified to try this. We have to report back to the State of Wisconsin as to how this is helping our residents.”

Ever since they found out they were going to be one of the 100 nursing homes selected to be part of the study, Prokash and staff set to work to get things ready so they could get the iPods in the residents’ hands as quickly as possible. They received their shipment of iPods and headphones in early January and have already gotten the devices in the hands of some of their residents.

“I’m really proud of my staff and the effort they put into this program,” Prokash said. “We have been working on this for about three months now and we are already seeing results.”

The Deerfield, on the other hand, is still in the early stages of the program and is still working on downloading all the music they have collected or putting the songs onto the iPods. Even though she has yet to see the iPods in action, Waalen already feels like the music will have a positive effect on the residents once they get to hear the music.

“I think this will be very effective because a lot of our residents right now, one of their last things is hearing, and long-term memory can be affected by music that they heard a long time ago,” Waalen said. “It might bring them back to their college or high school years and those will be memories that will be happy memories for them.”

Both the St. Croix County Health Center and the Deerfield are hoping to expand their iPod numbers and music collections in order to get as many iPods in the hands of their residents as possible.

“We were approved for 15 iPods, but again they have trained us to find more ways to raise some money to maybe get more iPods to allow more patients to try it out; our goal would be for every resident to have an iPod,” Waalen said. “I think that there is a lot of information that shows the effects and that it has been helping the patients.”

Music for every occasion

As far as the type of music the residents will be listening to on their iPods, both Waalen and Prokash said the genres would be wide and varied, with everything from big band music to Elvis.

“We try to use different types of music to help them during different times of the day,” Prokash said. “For example, when they get up in the morning, they would listen to track No. 1 which would be some upbeat music to get them going. Then track No. 2 would be for the afternoon when they might want to relax some after eating lunch and that would be some more calming music. We have also found that if they listen to certain music before a meal the residents eat better.”

In addition to upbeat and calming music, Waalen is looking to find music that will help the residents when they are missing loved ones or when they might be having a bad day.

“Maybe during the middle of the day, they are missing their loved ones, so we want to download maybe some of the family voices,” Waalen said. “And maybe toward the end of the day, if they are having a bad day, then you want to have them relax with relaxation music or spiritual songs.”

Above all else, the most important thing is to try and get a positive response from the residents and Prokash is already seeing that in some of her residents when they hear a favorite song or something that reminds them of their past.

“Some of the residents we get very little response from, but when we find the correct song that they can connect to then they start to sing along,” Prokash said. “We are also finding that more verbal songs with words are helping more than those with just piano and that it makes the residents talk more and be more verbal.”

Help of volunteers

Given the scope of this program, it isn’t easy for just the staff at the nursing homes to help out with the downloading and uploading of the music. So, Waalen and Prokash reached out to friends and students at the local high school to see if they could find some help. Prokash was able to recruit New Richmond High School student Nick Bradish, while Waalen brought in family friend and Amery High School student Keenan Luke

“My mom is a good friend with some of the people at the Deerfield, so that is how I got connected with this project,” Luke said. “I do a decent amount of volunteering and this has been what I have been mostly doing though. I help by downloading all the music onto iTunes and then I’ll eventually be putting it onto the iPods.”

So far, Luke has been working with the Deerfield staff for several weeks to help them get all the residents’ music onto a computer and then get them uploaded onto the iPods.

“It has been a lot of fun and I like doing this kind of stuff computer-wise,” Luke said. “It has been a very fun experience as well as getting volunteer hours for it.”

The music getting downloaded is mostly older music that the residents enjoy listening to from their younger days. The idea is that music from their generation will stimulate a resident’s brain and help them remember the good old days as well as other things about their lives.

“They listen to anything from polka to some Elvis and a lot of other types of music,” Luke said. “I am mostly moving over the songs from the CDs that the residents lend to us for this project.”

One of the problems Luke has run into, which has also been a problem at the St. Croix County Health Center, is when the CDs come up on iTunes without the song titles. There are a few solutions to the problem, including just labeling the songs with the album names and then a number or listening to the songs until someone can figure out the title.

“While I’ve been working on this I’ve started to like some of the music; it has been wearing on me slowly,” Luke said. “I have definitely found that some of this older music is something I could listen to more than I would otherwise.”

So far, Luke has downloaded more than 500 songs working about three to four hours once a week at the Deerfield, while also taking the computer home to continue downloading music.

“I feel like it will help them a lot and make their day a little better,” Luke said. “It would be nice to listen to the music from my childhood if I was them at their age. I feel like it would be a good remembrance of the glory days almost.”

Help still needed

--The Deerfield is seeking iTunes cards, music CDs, extra iPods and volunteers to download music and set up playlists for residents. To help with this outreach project, contact Jackie Waalen at or 715-243-3912.

-- The St. Croix County Health Center is now taking in donations of heavy duty headphones, iPods, small portable speakers, and iTunes gift cards. The nursing home’s goal is to add at least 10 or more iPods for resident use. To help with this program, contact Cindy Prokash, activity director, or 715-246-6991.

Jordan Willi
Jordan Willi is a reporter for the New Richmond News. Previously, he worked as a sports reporter at the Worthington Daily Globe in Worthington, Minnesota. He also interned at the Hudson Star Observer for two summers and contributed to the Bison Illustrated sports magazine at North Dakota State University.
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