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Music and memories
Orval Harlson starts up his iPod Shuffle after some help with his headphones from Brittany Werrline, an employee with the Life Enrichment Department, inside Pleasant View Nursing Home. The iPods are used by residents with dementia or Alzheimer's disease to help bring them back to a time they remember. (Times photo: Anthony Wahl)
MONROE - Orval Harlson used to play the fiddle. He grew up listening to American Bandstand, and now, listening to old pop and folk songs on an iPod brings a smile to his face.

Harlson, a resident of Pleasant View Nursing home, is able to listen to some of his favorite folk tunes on the small digital device - the iPods are used by residents with dementia or Alzheimer's disease to bring them back to a time they remember.

Pleasant View was selected in late 2013 to receive 15 iPod Shuffles and chargers, 15 headphones, one speaker and a $100 iTunes gift card as pat of a Wisconsin Department of Health Services grant to 100 nursing homes in the state.

The iPods are used in both the Nursing and Life Enrichment departments at Pleasant View. Jennifer Binder, supervisor for the Life Enrichment Department, said the music has had a huge impact on the residents.

"It has decreased wandering and improved the quality of life for our residents," Binder said.

Brittany Werrline, who also works in the Life Enrichment Department, said she approached each resident individually to find out their specific musical tastes and what to load onto the Shuffles, which can hold about 500 to 600 songs. Werrline said many Pleasant View employees donated their old CDs to be catalogued and then loaded on the iPods.

One volunteer burned the innumerable CDs onto the home's database for use through the Music and Memory Program, Binder said.

Listening to favorite music has a noticeable effect. One resident, Werrline said, is usually very quiet and doesn't talk much, but when she listens to music she taps her feet and even sings along to the songs.

"She likes the polka music," Werrline said. "Sometimes she even dances, in her wheelchair."

"The employees will even dance with her ... well, chair dancing," Binder said.

Employees keep a running list of residents' names attached to their playlist to make sure they get to listen to what they want.

They also have some newer music for their younger patients who may come in with some type of head injury, Binder said.

"We've got everything from "Barbie Girl' to AC/DC," Binder said.

Harlson, originally from north of Eau Claire, is a case in point. He said he likes to listen to Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley but on a recent visit, he was striking thunder with AC/DC.

Binder said there haven't been any complaints from the residents - except for one who didn't want the headphones on because she had just gotten her hair done.

The iPods came with headphones as well as one speaker, but Binder said Pleasant View received a couple more donated speakers. Binder also purchased waterproof bags to keep the iPods in. She said they are always seeking donations or volunteers at the nursing home.

Binder said beyond improving residents' quality of life and getting a little exercise in tapping their feet, the music helps decrease boredom and sometimes helps with pain management.

"We've seen a decrease in pain medication," Binder said. "The music helps them to have something else to think about."

Binder said that Alzheimer's and dementia tend to leave long-term memories somewhat intact but it's "piece-meal." She said memories for patients tend not to follow a chronological order, but listening to the music from the past can help residents revitalize their nostalgia.

"It can take them back to a point in life when they were happy," Binder said.