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Strike up the band

11/9/2013

By MATT KENWRIGHT

mkenwright@dailynews.net

For one hour twice a year, the residents at Cedar View Assisted Living Residence travel back in time.  

One can see the gleam in their eyes as they do the two-step, waltz, polka and other routines from their glory days. Those who are not as mobile scoot around in wheelchairs or dance in their seats.

They are not the only ones who indulge in nostalgia. Via Christi Village, Sterling House of Hays, Hays Good Samaritan Center and Ellis Good Samaritan Center all are visited by the Wes Windholz Polka Band twice a year.

With two accordions, a saxophone and a guitar, band members play tunes from a time that seems like yesterday for their audiences. It performs the third Thursday of every month in retirement homes.

The Wes Windholz Polka Band has been playing at Cedar View since it was built in 2001, said Treva Benoit, director of the complex.

The performances reignite the residents' youthful spirits, Benoit said.

"It just brings back a lot of memories for the residents. They just glow," Benoit said. "These are the nights you want to be here."

The experience provides an evening to escape the realities of aging. Many of them struggle with a variety of health conditions, Benoit said.

"They still know how to dance; they still have the beat. If they can walk, they can pretty much dance," Benoit said. "If they could jitterbug, they would."

Norma Weimer said she and her bandmates, Wes Windholz, Rosie Dinkel and Ronnie Herl, have performed separately and together for decades. Weimer said she is the last remaining member of the group that started playing in retirement homes 29 years ago.

Weimer said the joy the music brings the residents is mutual.

"It's just really made me feel good," Weimer said. "I get done playing and see how happy the people are. It brings back some of their past."

Dinkel said she has seen the music boost residents' morale.

"Their disposition changes when we play. Their whole attitude is different afterwards," Dinkel said. "It's like the old times when they played this type of music, and now it brings back the memories."

Windholz said  the evenings are more than a night of reminiscing.

"It does something to them. It's like music therapy," Windholz said. "For a lot of these people, this was the music they grew up to. They celebrated to this."

The nature of the music has a rejuvenating effect, Windholz said.

"The polkas and waltzes are happy music," he said. "You might be tired coming home from work or feeling kind of down. Well, you pick up your instrument and you play some music. It kind of picks up your spirit."

The effect on the residents is apparent, Windholz said.

"When you start playing, you can see that they enjoy it by seeing their faces," he said. "You can see they may not be able to get up and dance around or anything like that, but you can see some feet tapping or hands tapping on the table."

Leonard Augustine, an 84-year-old resident at Cedar View, said he played polka music alone and in a band for 30 years before a heart condition forced him to retire his saxophone.

"I will love music 'til I die. Music will never leave me," Augustine said. "I can't do it no more. It's hard."

Music was an escape from working full-time on a dairy farm, he said.

"I had my farming to do," Augustine said. "Every Saturday night, we'd play. ... There were a lot of weddings. Played in the afternoon, had supper, played in the evening 'til midnight. Go home, get up in the morning, and work on the dairy farm. We were busy."

Weimer said the band feels compelled to return to the assisted-living homes even as the familiar faces change.

"Through the years, I've seen people -- a lot of them have passed -- but you keep going back to the nursing home," she said. "A few months later, some of them won't be there. ... But you keep going."