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Nostalgic songs bring smiles to Willowbrook Place residents

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By Deborah Swearingen

Smiles lit up Willowbrook Place last week when Josh Brookstein played classic tunes by John Denver, Elvis Presley, Simon and Garfunkel, and more.

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The joy in the room was palpable as Willowbrook residents, all of whom have Alzheimer’s disease or some form of dementia, sat enthralled, tapping their toes, bobbing their heads and singing along.

“… The power of music is amazing,” said Brookstein, a Broomfield resident who performs at the South Jeffco memory care facility twice a month.

“I mean, the connections run so deep. People that can’t form a sentence can sing a lyric. It’s an odd thing. It’s like things from the past, but it brings them into the present. It brings them into their bodies.”

Brookstein has always been a musician, but he began performing at assisted-living facilities, retirement homes and memory care units about six years ago after becoming a caretaker.

He realized the positive effects of music as his clients reacted positively when he played his guitar.

“I started putting two and two together. … I thought, ‘Wow, I could do that,’ ” he said.

Walter, one Willowbrook Place resident, certainly appreciated the nostalgic songs. The music “sets my soul on fire,” he said, as Brookstein began to play.

Walter jumped to his feet several times, swinging Ardith, another resident, to the beat of the music and clapping his hands joyfully.

At the end of the performance, Walter stood and graciously thanked Brookstein for his time.

“Not only did he vibrate the dust out of our souls, he put honey in it, too,” Walter said to the crowd of residents and Willowbrook staff.

For Brookstein, comments like those make traveling for shows worth it. He frequently receives praise from the residents and their spouses and other loved ones, who notice the changes music can bring.

Though there are countless instances of connecting with people through his music, Brookstein can recall one time that was particularly special.

He played “Here Comes the Sun” by The Beatles, and a resident, who generally sat emotionless, began to react.

“Apparently, his nickname when he was younger was ‘Sunshine,’ ” Brookstein said. “He was pretty deep in Alzheimer’s. It was pretty severe for him. … But he actually reached out for his wife’s hand, held her hand and started singing the song. And he started calling her pet names he hadn’t called her in 30 years.”

Michael Porterfield, life enrichment director at Willowbrook, is constantly searching for new activities for the residents. But music is always a go-to for him.

“I just love bringing a smile to their faces, giving them a purpose,” he said.

In his time working for the memory care facility, he’s seen that music does just that.

Brookstein said his job might be beneficial for the residents, but it gives a lot back, too.

“Almost everywhere I go … it brings smiles. It’s, like, the greatest job. My job is making people happy,” he said.

Contact reporter Deborah Swearingen at dswearingen@evergreenco.com.