Ralph Schwanbeck feared that his 87-year-old wife, Dorothy, might balk at donning headphones for the first time in her life, but her broad smile proved that the iPod was playing her songs.
Dorothy, who has Parkinson’s disease, gently tapped her toes a few times while listening to some of her favorite tunes Monday at Hillview Health Care Center in La Crosse.
Hillview is one of 100 nursing homes statewide certified to participate in a Wisconsin Department of Health Services program to help residents with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.
Titled the Wisconsin Music and Memory Initiative, the program employs iPods with personalized playlists to rekindle residents’ memories with familiar music, as well as lift their spirits and improve their interaction with family members, other residents and staffers.
The program provides each nursing home with 15 iPods, but Hillview sees such promise that it also bought one and invites people to donate new or used iPods.
Even though Hillview began the program just Friday, results for Dorothy were beginning to show Monday.
“I didn’t think she’d go for it this well,” said Ralph, her husband of 68 years, who visits her at the nursing home several times a week.
“Anything new she’s a little bit strange with, and this is the first time she’s ever had headphones,” said Ralph, who recently celebrated his 90th birthday.
Noting that it was just after lunch, when Dorothy usually naps, he said, “I’m amazed how she’s sitting here. Normally, she’d be asleep, but she’s anything but.”
Dorothy, who has been at Hillview for 1½ years, made comments such as, “Oh, I like that one” and “That’s a pretty one.”
Daughter Mary Carskadon of La Crosse said her mother normally isn’t that communicative.
“I’m very excited that it’s something that will help Mom feel at peace,” Carskadon said.
Ralph echoed his daughter’s sentiments, saying, “I’m hoping this will relax her more. Sometimes, she can be quite tense.”
Relaxation is one of the program’s goals, said Brooke Smith, Hillview’s recreational therapy manager.
“We also wanted to lessen the anti-psychotic or anti-anxiety medications,” she said. “We would love to see increased cognition.
“And instead of pain medication, we hope the music will divert their attention from pain,” Smith said.
Hillview administrator Pete Eide said, “We hope it will reduce negative reactions and bring back enjoyable memories.”
The track record at Norseland Nursing Home in Westby, which began the program in December, bodes well for those hopes.
“Staff have seen many benefits since day one,” said Norseland recreation therapy director Kim Martinson.
“It is amazing to see someone’s face light up when they hear their personalized music,” Martinson said. “We have seen a decrease in resident behaviors, less wandering, more social interaction and they are more upbeat and happy after listening to their music.”
One resident who used to yell a lot now quiets down when he listens to his iPod, she said.
Linda Fabry, activity director at Rolling Hills Rehabilitation Center in Sparta, said the response there has been generally positive since starting about a month ago.
“They enjoy the music so much they will talk to others next to them and say, ‘Are you listening to this,’ even when the other person doesn’t have an iPod,” she said.
Some residents are more cheerful and those who tend to be sleepy are awake more, she said.
At Hillview, up to half of the 199 residents have some form of dementia, in varying degrees, Eide said.
“I envision all Alzheimer’s patients being involved within a year,” he said.
Staffers confer with family members to pinpoint the type of music the patient prefers. The programs goal is to identify specific artists and songs the residents identify with most readily to attain maximum benefits.
Carskadon said her mother’s favorites are old movie themes — “‘The Sound of Music,’ ‘Meet Me in St. Louis,’ Judy Garland songs, songs she used to sing with my children.
“I’m excited that Hillview is in the pilot,” she said. “It’s amazing how music can connect with centers in the brain. It’ll be interesting to see in six months.”
The Music and Memory Initiative is part of a national program that Dan Cohen pioneered in Mineola, N.Y., in 2006 and founded a nonprofit organization to spread it.
The Wisconsin DHS plans to expand it to another 135 of the 397 nursing homes in the state this spring. Almost 16,000 of the 29,000 residents of those nursing homes have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or related dementia, according to DHS.
“I didn’t think she’d go for it this well. Anything new she’s a little bit strange with, and this is the first time she’s ever had headphones.” Ralph Schwanbeck, on his wife, Dorothy, listening to her iPod