Alive Inside: A Story of Memory and Music, directed by Michael Rossato-Bennet, is a moving multifaceted documentary about music’s ability to awaken seniors with Alzheimer’s disease and other debilitating types of dementia.
It follows the journey of Dan Cohen, founder of the nonprofit organization Music and Memory, whose mission is simple — see to it that every nursing home resident has an MP3 player pre-loaded with their favorite music. At the same time, Alive Inside effectively delves into the deep themes of aging, mortality and the state of U.S. nursing homes.
Cohen is a believer in music’s ability to improve lives. We meet Cohen in Alive Inside not as a stodgy academic, or even a by-the-book music therapist, but as someone tuned in to the fact that magic can happen when you play music — someone who has applied this knowledge to people with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia.
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These conditions seem to steal the soul of the victim as much as the body. But when Cohen plays music for seniors with dementia in nursing homes, some who appear to be in near-catatonic states, their response to the music reminds us that their soul has in no way been stolen, merely obscured.
As the film’s title suggests, they are “Alive Inside.”
In a 2012 interview about music therapy, Cohen told us about the breathtaking transformations music can provoke:
“People actually awaken and can sing the music when they hear it — a wonderful thing for families and caregivers to experience after watching their loved ones’ transformations into strangers.”
Cohen continues, “You see, people often lose their sense of self and identity in a nursing home or assisted living facility. Nursing home staff know who someone is as far as [his or her] medication or daily routine, but actually knowing who people are —and their past— is a different story. Through music, senior housing staff and their residents are able to connect as a resident’s reaction to music can bring up fascinating questions, stories and conversations of the resident’s past.”
Alive Inside allows us to witness these awakenings first hand. In the film’s opening scene we meet a 90-year-old woman who apologizes to director Rossato-Bennet, because she can’t recall anything when he questions her about her past life. Then headphones are placed over her ears. It’s Louis Armstrong’s classic rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The woman’s expression transforms. Tears of joy well up. The elderly woman begins to talk about her past and the memories and emotions the song has evoked. The music has transformed her.
The turnaround is near miraculous. In these moments of joy and ecstasy the senior’s beautiful and authentic self, which has been shrouded by dementia, shines through. They are no longer just nursing home patients, but unique and interesting people experiencing the moment (which is all we ever have) in its fullest. As the film progresses, we meet many more individuals in nursing homes who have retreated into themselves with no sign of returning to the here and now. Their capacity to communicate or comprehend is, in fact, in doubt when we meet many of them. Invariably, the music they love brings them to life.
We see that by sharing music with residents we are also providing them with a chance to share a part of themselves. This is no small thing for the approximately half of nursing home residents who, as the film sadly notes, do not receive regular visitors. Without visitors or an opportunity to express themselves fully, nursing home patients may be deprived of fulfilling the natural role of elders as teachers, storytellers, family historians and transmitters of aspects of culture that may fade away.
Oliver Sacks, world renowned neurologist and author of Musicophilia (a recent book about music and the brain), was interviewed in the film and he explains that one of the last areas of the brain to be affected in patients with Alzheimer’s and similar types of dementia is the part of the brain that processes music. The key, Sacks reminds us, is that the music usually must be music they are familiar with — music they have known and loved. While Sacks is a welcome addition to the film, the seemingly miraculous transformations we witness demonstrate the power of music better than any neurologist or brain scan ever could.
Equally affecting is the portrayal of the passionate believers in the power of music who have pushed the cause of getting music to dementia patients. For instance, musician Samite Mulondo, an immigrant to the U.S. from Uganda is featured prominently in the film generously giving his time to the older residents, playing and singing music that moves the elderly residents despite the fact it is traditional African music rather than an American jazz or pop standards. In one especially touching moment of the film, Mulondo spends time playing music for a woman who has just learned that she is dying. The tranquil music he plays for her is just as calming as his peaceful and centered demeanor. She even takes off a necklace she is wearing and gives it to him as a gesture of thanks, and it’s clear his visit has brought her great peace.
Cohen’s own persistence in the face of an industry which resists change is equally inspiring. An aspect of the film’s narrative shows us Cohen’s struggle to spread the music, and at some points he becomes discouraged. His discouragement seems to melt when a clip from the early stage of shooting the documentary went viral on YouTube.
In fact, we wrote about that clip ourselves, describing it in an April 2012 blog post: “It shows an older man with dementia who is seemingly only able to answer yes or no questions. But when someone puts headphones over his ears and plays music from his youth, he suddenly transforms, becoming happy, animated and even eloquent. Shortly after this experience he tells Rossato-Bennet, ‘It [music] gives me the feeling of love, of romance. I figure right now the world needs to come into music, singing.'”
That clip irrevocably changed Music and Memory and catapulted Cohen’s work to the front of American culture and the senior care industry. Suddenly caregivers across America were trying Cohen’s simple method, and music therapy leapt to the forefront of the discussion in the senior living industry. Currently that clip, which was the seed of the feature length documentary Alive Inside, has more than 10 million views.
The Alive Inside trailer can be viewed here. Alive Inside is opening nationwide, and currently playing in Los Angeles, New York and Washington D.C., and will soon be opening in San Francisco. The documentary is also available for pre-order on iTunes and will be available on Netflix and DVD in October 2014.
Additionally, Music and Memory is accepting donations of used iPods to help seniors with dementia. Or, if you believe in the cause but don’t have a spare iPod, a tax deductible donation directly to Music and Memory can help Music and Memory acquire iPods for low means seniors with dementia.
Have you or a loved one used music therapy as a dementia treatment? Is there a particular song that connects with your loved one with dementia? Share your story in the comments below.