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Each memory has a soundtrack

Songs for Seniors Bob Knutson hugs Preferred Senior Living activities director Darla Walter during an interview about the benefits of bringing vintage vinyl records to senior citizens. (Herald photo by Sarah Young)1 / 3
(Left) Robbin Gust assists Songs for Seniors founder Bob Knutson (far right) in bringing vintage vinyl records to area nursing homes/memory care units. Activities director Darla Walter (second from left) stands next to a tower and record player donated to Preferred Senior Living by Knutson. Al Huppert, of Ellsworth (second from right) outfitted the record player tower with wheels so it could meet mobility requirements in the memory care unit. (Herald photo by Sarah Young)2 / 3
Preferred Senior Living activities director Darla Walter presents Songs for Seniors founder Bob Knutson with a certificate of appreciation Friday, April 15, as well as a surprise: two carts full of donated records. (Herald photo by Sarah Young)3 / 3

ELLSWORTH -- Maybe it’s the scratch of the needle on the vinyl, or the brightly colored album jackets. Or could it be the records remind them of when they were young with the world at their fingertips? Music has a healing power that rivals the strongest medications.

Whatever the case, listening to good, old-fashioned vinyl records has toes tapping, mouths singing and memories flying at Preferred Senior Living in Ellsworth. Strains of Johnny Cash filtered through the air Friday, April 15 at the assisted living and memory care facility, and it’s hard to miss the smiles that take over the residents’ faces.

While this may not sound extraordinary, there is no other way to describe it except as just that. It’s all thanks to Red Wing resident Bob Knutson, founder of Songs for Seniors, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing vintage vinyl records and the equipment needed to play them free of charge to nursing homes, memory care units and assisted living facilities in the area.

Knutson admits he stumbled into his charitable endeavor by accident, though he feels it was God’s way of telling him “You need to do this.”

A welder by trade, Knutson used to take his neighbor to the grocery store and barber shop after the man suffered a stroke. When he died, his family bequeathed a collection of records to Knutson, who estimates there were 1,500 to 2,000 in the lot. He listened to and enjoyed them, but realized seniors may enjoy them even more.

When he first took them to an area nursing home about three years ago, along with a record player and tower for storage, the director was disbelieving. She wondered what the catch was, Knutson said. What was in it for him? He paid for the record player and tower with his own money, and promised to change out the records monthly.

“It doesn’t pay me in dollars and cents,” Knutson said. “But I have been paid back 10-fold.”

Knutson has donated 21 audio towers, speaker systems and record players to 17 facilities, all with his own money. He received non-profit status in January. Many of the records he changes out at the facilities come from word-of-mouth donations. Different stores found out about his charity work and offer him deals on equipment and towers.

Preferred Living activities director Darla Walter said studies show that music aids dementia patients in memory and recognition. Many music and memory programs offer iPods with personalized playlists for patients. While these programs are wonderful, the vinyl records seem to bring provide a visual component while rounding out the full musical experience, Walter said.

“Many young kids today can’t relate, due to digital music, but there is something distinct about that vinyl sound,” Walter said. “When we sit down and listen to the music, you can see residents looking at the covers and you can just see the memories overcome them.”

Walter and Knutson both said they’ve seen people sing along to records who haven’t spoken in years. Preferred Senior Living director Julie Chollett agreed.

“People who usually aren’t verbal, you see them tapping their feet,” Chollett said. “I’ve firsthand seen the effects of the music. It brings back their youthfulness.”

Knutson said the records have drawn people out of their rooms who normally don’t venture from their confines. People have told him when they visit their parents, they end up in front of one of his record players, which in turn takes them back 30 to 40 years when they listened to records with their parents at home.

“You can just see the recognition on their faces,” Walter said. “Maybe they’re reliving a first moment or special times in their lives. A wedding, a first date, long lost loves, a first dance.”

Robbin Gust, Knutson’s assistant, said she knows how they feel. The first time she heard the song “Satin Sheets,” it immediately transported her back to her mother’s boyfriend strumming the tune on his guitar. She could smell, see and hear the moment like it was happening in front of her again.

Walter said she believes the visual elements of the records provide something to residents that digital music cannot. Many times residents don’t want to give the album covers back. The turntables are easy for them to use; all they need to do is fiddle with the volume button. The devices turn off my themselves. Al Huppert of Ellsworth even outfitted one tower so it can be moved around the memory care unit.

“He doesn’t think it’s a big deal, but it is,” Walter said of Huppert. “I wanted to cry because I was trying to figure out how to make it (the record player) mobile and he had wheels on it the next day.”

Johnny Cash and Elvis are by far the most requested albums, Knutson said. When a rare one is on someone’s list, he does his best to find it. On more than one occasion, an album has seemingly appeared out of nowhere when Knutson has been searching for it. Another pointed reminder from God that he is doing what was meant for him, Knutson said.

For example, someone asked for Ronnie Aldrich. Knutson had never heard of him, but later that week was given the record by a vintage vinyl store owner in Red Wing.

“The grit of the vinyl, yes I call it grit,” Walter said. “Downloads are crisp and clear but this is more authentic. Imperfections in the vinyl are like real performances.”

Knutson said he’s been told many times that the music helps residents sleep better at night.

“The songs go through my head at night,” one woman told Knutson. “I haven’t slept this good in years. It’s the best medicine.”

Knutson is tearful as Walter tells him what his records have meant to residents. He wipes away a tear as Gust tells of a woman in Hastings who listened to an Eddie Fisher record and cried and sang along. She revealed that it reminded her of when her husband died.

“You are truly listening to God’s call,” Walter told Knutson. “He’s helping you along. You only want to make residents happy.”

As Huppert and Knutson were awarded certificates of appreciation at the Preferred Senior Living happy hour Friday, Walter surprised Knutson with two carts full of donated records.

“There are millions of dollars of memories here,” Knutson said in disbelief. “These should be in every nursing home. It’s easier for staff also when the residents are happy.”

Preferred Senior Living is hosting a “Songs for Seniors” record drive through April 30. Records can be dropped off at the facility (429 W. Wayne St., Ellsworth). If you have questions, contact Walter at 715-821-1025.

To learn more about Songs for Seniors, contact Knutson at 651-212-6326.

“I’ve been walking with a man (resident) to Kenny Rogers, and you can just see his spark,” Walter said. “He no longer shuffles, but takes longer steps. We have people polka dancing in wheelchairs. That’s the effect these records have.”

Sarah Nigbor

Sarah J. Nigbor serves as a regional editor for RiverTown Multimedia, a position she began in April 2017. She joined RiverTown Multimedia in October 2013 as a news reporter for the New Richmond News, before being appointed editor of the Pierce County Herald in Febraury 2015. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Spanish and French in 2001. She completed a minor in journalism in 2004. 

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