Mauricette Larsen sits calmly in her wheelchair, an iPod shuffle clipped to her clothing and headphones gently hugging her ears.

Larsen, 84, a resident of Brookside Care Center, smiles brightly at Erica Maika, a registered nurse who assists her and others living with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Along with Tara Johnson, the center’s director of recreation and volunteers, Maika greets her and asks her what she’s listening to.

“I love music. I love it so much. This is pretty,” she says in an ever-so-gentle voice, her French accent noticeable as she briefly describes what she likes to listen to.

For Larsen, it’s anything from the Beach Boys to Louis Armstrong and traditional French music, too.

“I love French,” she says with her headset now off, a lilt in her tone as if she is ready to sing.

And then, “Help Me Rhonda,” she answers when asked what Beach Boys’ tune is her favorite.

Larsen is one of 15 residents at the center who are among the first in the state participating in the Wisconsin Department of Health Services’ “Music & Memory Initiative.”

The initiative is based on “Music & Memory” founder Dan Cohen’s program, which is built around neuroscience research. The program is featured in the Michael Rossato-Bennet’s documentary “Alive Inside,” which make its debut at the Sundance Film Festival this year.

Earlier this year, staff and volunteers at the county’s nursing home began the conscientious undertaking of finding the music their residents once enjoyed in their youth.

Consulting with family members and caregivers who helped them put together personalized playlists, the residents participating in the statewide pilot program have been listening for just a few weeks, but in all cases the initial reaction has been the same.

“The first day we started using them with the residents you could just see it in their faces,” she said. “Some sing and some clap along with the music.”

Brookside was one of 100 nursing home facilities in the state to be chosen to take part in the state research study being conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The data will be collected for a year.

Maika was among those who attended a state seminar and learned about how music affects people who, because of the progression of Alzheimer’s, become withdrawn and are no longer able to speak or communicate.

Within the first few days of the residents listening to “their” music, staff members say they have noticed how it “triggers” what is left of their memories.

“It seemed like they were doing it (recalling things triggered by music),” Maika said, referring to the video that she watched of patients who were featured in Cohen’s program.

Maika, a registered nurse for 23 years, said that as people age, usually their hearing is the last to go.

“So that even if they can’t respond (verbally), this is something that can still touch them. Music is in everybody’s life,” she said.

In the few weeks since the nursing home has been participating in the Music and Memory program, staff has begun to see some results, albeit anecdotal for now.

“Less agitation overall,” she said. “It just really seems to bring the stress down, and it’s going really good.”

In addition to helping to stimulate memories of their residents, another goal is to also lessen or eliminate the use of medication that might otherwise be used to stabilize them.

“We don’t want to use medication ... and no restraints,” she said.

Residents on average listen to music 30 minutes a day, she said.

“Everybody loves music,” Maika said. “Some of them who haven’t even talked for years — they will start singing the songs.”

Betty Dyutka, 85, another resident who does not interact verbally, nods her head and sings the songs that have been uploaded to her iPod. She stares and smiles. Then suddenly, she bobs her head and grooves to the tunes while sitting in her wheelchair.

Dyutka waves as if saying “hi” and as other staff walk by, they wave back.

But Johnson said that there have been times when staff has reached for the iPod to help soothe a patient.

“We had one resident who was physically agitated, at one point, and the music calmed her down,” she said.

From a staff point of view, she said, the nurses and others caring for dementia and Alzheimer’s patients feel frustration of not being able to help.

“It hurts ... you want to help them, but you can’t sometimes.”

Now they have music.

Johnson would like to get more donations of iPod shuffles or other iPods, with the hope of using it with other residents at Brookside.

“It’s exciting to think we were chosen to be a part of this,” she said.

She also sees the potential outside the pilot study to help more, if not all residents at the nursing home, benefit from it.

“The whole program is focusing on residents with dementia and dementia-related conditions. but we’re looking to expand to residents who are here for short-term (care) or even end of life care.”

— Those wishing to donate an iPod to the program should contact Tara Johnson at 653-3834 or by email at tara.johnson@kenoshacounty.org.

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