Michael Rossato-Bennett’s documentary, “Alive Inside,” follows social worker Dan Cohen’s iPod crusade (run through a nonprofit called Music and Memory) for over a year to capture some of the most human and compelling evidence about the power of music on patients with dementia. Cohen’s dedicated crusade to introduce music into nursing homes could revolutionize the way we approach the care and treatment of the elderly, especially the 5 million plus Americans living with dementia disorders.
In the film’s opening scene, an elderly African-American woman has no recollection of her youth when asked, “What was life like when you were a little girl?” and, “What have you forgotten?”
“I’ve forgotten so much, I’m very sorry,” she says. “I forgot what I used to do after I became a young lady…I’ve been here 90 years, and if I could remember, I would tell you.”
She accepts a set of earphones and an iPod loaded with songs from the ‘30s. She inserts ear buds and listens. “It’s Louis Armstrong,” she says. Miraculously, her memories slowly return and she’s able to remember sneaking off as a teenager to listen to Armstrong’s concerts! She recollects her son’s birthday, and as the memories gather momentum she laughs and says, “I didn’t know I could talk so much! In one electrifying scene after another, when handed an iPod and fitted with earphones, patients, including those in apparent catatonic states, come to life upon hearing their favorite music played.
A clip from “Alive Inside,” became a YouTube hit not long ago: Henry, an African-American man in his 90s, constantly in a semi-dormant state with his eyes closed, and curled inward like a fetus, is given an iPod stocked with the gospel music of his youth. Incredibly, within seconds his eyes are wide open, and he’s singing and humming along, and talking to the people around him. He sings, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” in perfect pitch. He prefers Cab Calloway’s scat-singing to gospel. A short Calloway imitation jogs his memories back to the 1930s and his job delivering groceries on his bicycle. We are heartbreakingly aware that Henry, though near the end of his life, is still a “person,” with his whole life experience locked inside himself.
In one riveting and revealing scene, a bipolar schizophrenic woman with late stage cancer ditches her wheelchair and walker, and dances salsa. In another scene an army veteran, who lost all his hair in the Los Alamos A-bomb test, has difficulty recognizing his younger self in a picture, but sings along loudly when he hears big band numbers. “It makes me feel like I got a girl,” he says. “I’m gonna hold her tight.”
An attractive, middle-aged, boomer grandma, unable to find the elevator in her building, or distinguish the up from down button, when fitted with the earphones and iPod, starts jiving around youthfully to the music of the Beach Boys, her face alight with joy. In many wonderful moments we witness those transformations unfold—seeing joy and gratitude on all the respondents’ faces as they're experiencing the music from their younger days. Some even manage to carry a tune! Dr. Oliver Sacks, noted neurologist, says that music appears to access brain areas that evolved for other reasons, and they remain relatively unaffected by dementia disorders, and Alzheimer’s cognitive decline. He explains that, “Music is inseparable from emotion. The parts of the brain that remember, and respond to music, are not affected too much in Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias.” Apparently, stimulating the undamaged areas with familiar signals can temporarily unlock memory, emotion and verbal ability. Even physical ability seems to improve with all patients becoming visibly more active.
Current Altzheimer’s or dementia treatment focuses on sedating, and managing patients with powerful, expensive drugs—paid for by the healthcare industry—that do little or nothing for them. Bill Thomas, an activist geriatrician, decries a system which approves these drugs for use more swiftly than it does the $40 mp3 players. One physician likens Medicare-funded, modern day nursing homes to a combination of a poorhouse and a hospital, with a social stigma attached that’s as strong as the smell of disinfectant. In a culture that focuses mainly on the glamor of youth, older people, rather than being valued and nurtured, are often heartbreakingly isolated and lonely, ensconced in anonymous facilities, and separated from ordinary social life. We tend to think about old age as little as possible even though many of us are destined to live many years as senior citizens.We should examine the tragic failures of our elder-care system, and wonder how the Western world will deal with its rapidly growing, aging population.
As a professional keyboard musician, I’ve been privileged to regularly entertain at nursing home facilities, and can attest personally to the incredible transformations I’ve witnessed in response to my music. Advanced dementia patients remember words of many songs, and sing with gusto. While making me teary eyed at times, it never fails to gladden and fill my heart with gratitude that I am able to offer them something so valuable.
To quote Director Rossato-Bennet, “It’s my hope that the completion of this film and its wide release will bring the story of Dan’s work to the world; awakening our hearts and minds and inspiring us all to be and remain forever ‘Alive Inside’.”
“Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory” deservedly won the audience award at Sundance. Don’t miss this incredible, highly recommended, uplifting documentary.
Opening in Los Angeles on Friday, August 1st at the Nuart Theatre
Running time: 74 minutes
Photos: courtesy of BOND/360.
In association with: Impact Partners and Artemis Rising Foundation
Writer, Director, Producer : Michael Rossato-Bennett
Executive Producer: The Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation
Additional Executive Producers: Dan Cogan & Geralyn Dreyfous, Regina Scully, Eric J. Bertrand, Limore Shur, Ben Spivak
Co-Executive Producers: Diana Barrett for the Fledgling Fund
Producer : Alexandra Mcdougald
Director Of Photography: Shachar Langlev
Principle Editors: Mark Demolar, Manuel Tsingaris, Michael Rossato-Bennett
Composer: Itaal Shur
Story Consultant: Manuel Tsingaris
Co-Producers: Jonathan Clasberry, Barry Cole
Music Supervisor: Barry Cole
Digital Design: Eyeballdigital
Transmedia Production: Barry Cole
Sound Design: Eli Cohn