We’ve all been there. One minute casually strolling through the market, browsing laundry detergent, the next, whisked by a favorite song into the passionate embrace of an old flame. Music has the power to unlock our most emotional memories. Could it be the gateway to the past for people with dementia, reconnecting fragments of identities thought erased by disease? If so, what holds back the thousands of care facilities in the United States from giving their residents access to this seemingly simple therapy? These are the questions explored in “Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory,” a documentary directed and produced by Michael Rossato-Bennett.
The winner of the Documentary Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “Alive Inside” takes viewers along on social worker Dan Cohen’s quest to bring music to people with dementia or other isolating disorders. Supported by his nonprofit organization, Music and Memory, Cohen visits nursing homes and assisted-living facilities armed with headphones and iPods, seeking to awaken people and unlock memories veiled by the fog of neurodegenerative disease. Cohen consults with caregivers, family members, and when still possible, each person with dementia, to put together custom playlists that spark old memories or awaken forgotten senses.
Flying Away. Freed momentarily from the confines of early onset Alzheimer’s disease, Mary Lou Thompson (left) rejoices while listening to her favorite music. “I thought you were going to grow wings,” said Dan Cohen (right) of Music and Memory. The film “Alive Inside” documents Cohen’s crusade to bring music to people with dementia. Photo courtesy of BOND/360.
The emotions that spill out of each person after Cohen puts the headphones on are a sight to behold. The viewer watches music transform patients such as Henry, an elderly man who temporarily escapes the confines of severe dementia while listening to Cab Calloway, his favorite musician. With wide eyes and an animated expression, Henry sings along with the music. He even participates in a lively conversation after the headphones are removed.
A clip Rosatto-Bennett released of this scene in 2012 went viral on the Internet, drawing nearly 1.5 million views. “In some sense, Henry is restored to himself. He has remembered who he is, and he has reacquired his identity for a while through the power of music,” said neurologist and author Oliver Sacks of New York University. Sacks is interviewed in the documentary along with other clinicians, caregivers, and musicians, who tell tales of transformations they have witnessed.
Bringing music to patients is not simple. The movie documents the resistance Cohen meets trying to bring personalized music programs to each of the 16,000 nursing homes and assisted living facilities in the United States. Because music is not considered a bona fide treatment for dementia, securing reimbursement for the program is an uphill battle, even if personal iPods are cheaper than most drugs.
Starting on July 18, “Alive Inside” will screen at several locations and film festivals throughout the United States. —Jessica Shugart
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