For 15-year-old Jenna Wendt, helping residents at Heartland Country Village to hear their favorite music has completely changed her view of elders.
“When I was younger, I don’t know why, but I always thought they were sad or mean,” says the Wisconsin Heights high school freshman, who hopes to become a nurse. “Now when I walk in the door, some people ask me how my day is going or if it’s nice outside. They’re really friendly. I smile and they smile back. They always like me to ask how they feel about a song.”
Jenna is one of a growing number of high school volunteers who are helping out in MUSIC & MEMORY® Certified Care Organizations in Wisconsin, part of a focused effort to bridge generations, benefiting young and old alike.
She found out about the volunteer opportunity when Julie Hyland, Director of Wisconsin’s Music & Memory Student Program, spoke about the powerful impact of personalized music at her high school. Jenna saw this as a chance to get some experience for her career path, and Julie matched her up with Heartland Country Village.
Julie is currently working with more than three dozen nursing homes that are new to Music & Memory, matching them with high school and college volunteers. In 2013, Wisconsin launched the first statewide nursing home initiative to implement the personalized music program. More than 300 Wisconsin nursing homes have completed certification. The Wisconsin student initiative is a pilot program that Music & Memory hopes to replicate in other partner states, nationwide.
“Their Help Is Such a Win-Win for Us”
Working with three residents at Heartland Country Village, Jenna keeps them company as they listen to favorite music on iPods and headphones, and questions if they recognize the selections. This feedback helps Kelly Anthony, Activities Assistant, to refine the playlists. Kelly is Music & Memory Project Manager at the 50-bed facility in Black Earth, about a half hour from Madison.
“I think Jenna was a little leery at first with some of the residents,” says Kelly. “But after she started working with them and saw their personalities emerge, she discovered they’re just very kind people. She really enjoys being with them and singing with them.”
Kelly’s 16-year-old daughter, Priscilla, also volunteers with the Music & Memory program at Heartland Country Village. Since she works in dietary services and sees the residents at meal time, Priscilla notices what kind of ambient background music gets a reaction. “If I see them dancing, I let my Mom know,” she says.
“Sometimes they’ll start singing a song they like,” Priscilla adds. “One of the residents was singing a song to me that sounded weird. I went home and looked it up on YouTube. It was Temptation, an older song by Perry Como. So I told my mom and she put it on his iPod.” Says Kelly of her daughter, “She’ll pick up on someone humming and tell me it needs to be on their playlist.”
The two teens have caught the attention of Administrator Cheri McCormick. “Jenna and Priscilla are great volunteers, very unusual,” she says. “Their help is such a win-win for us.”
“High School and College Students Are a Great Asset to Any Facility”
Those sentiments are echoed by Vanessa Wade-Jarrett, Recreational Therapies Director at The Villa at Bradley Estates in Milwaukee. Her efforts to launch Music & Memory at the 185 bed facility over the past few months have also benefited from a high school volunteer, Sahuninee Matthews (“Ninee,” for short).
“Ninee was a great help interviewing residents to find out their music interests,” says Vanessa. “She filled out the intake forms, pulled out the CDs we already have in-house, cleaned them and prepared them to be burned to our iTunes library.”
Not one to sit around, Ninee was always looking for a way to help out. “She came excited every time, very organized,” says Vanessa. “She wanted to be on the floors, doing interviews. The residents enjoyed her company. She’s a very upbeat person.”
Now Vanessa looks forward to some summer volunteer help from two students from Cardinal Stritch University—who also happen to be her nieces. “I really believe that high school and college students, especially being familiar with the technology, are a great asset to any facility,” she says.
“The Residents Light Up When the Girls Arrive”
“Being more knowledgeable than we are, it’s more comfortable for them to sort and arrange our playlists,” Vanessa adds. “We always have someone in-house, but having someone volunteer to assist so we can do other recreation therapy activities is a great help.” The Villa currently has eight residents in the program, with a start-up goal of 10.
Kelly Anthony agrees that the teen volunteers make a big difference in successfully launching a Music & Memory program—not only by doing the all-important music detective work with residents, but also by simply brightening the lives of her residents.
“The residents don’t always understand that they’re coming, but when the girls walk in the door, they’re all smiles,” says Kelly. “It’s fun to see their faces light up when the girls arrive, and they recognize ‘this goes with my music.’”
Founded in 2010, MUSIC & MEMORY® is a non-profit organization that brings personalized music into the lives of people with cognitive or physical challenges through digital music technology, vastly improving quality of life.