Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory, directed and written by Michael Rossato-Bennett, is a documentary that follows Dan Cohen on his mission to integrate the highly effective use of personalized music therapy into the treatment of dementia. Personalized music therapy is a method where caretakers ask dementia patients a series of questions, from which the caretakers gather information in order to discern what type of music with which the patients have associated past memories. Through listening to the familiar music of their lives, dementia patients can recall memories that were formerly unreachable. The attention this film brings to the present state of the nursing home is incredibly important in showing that these sullen, quiet characters we meet in the beginning can transform into the lively, beautiful spirits that reside within them, just through the simple solution of hearing a couple of their favorite songs.
The documentary introduces its cause in the form of the heartwarming stories of patients from various nursing homes with which Cohen has worked. An especially stirring story is that of Henry. Henry is a patient with a severe case of dementia, one to the point where he needs around-the-clock nursing care for daily activities. His daughter, Cheryl, describes the Henry that she grew up with as a man with a great passion for all things musical. Before dementia, dancing and singing were among his great loves in life. However, Cheryl’s affectionate narration of her father greatly contrasts with Henry’s recreation therapist’s account of his behavior when he was first admitted into the nursing home.
Yvonne Russell, Henry’s recreational therapist, stated that Henry used to be very silent, disinterested in conversation or interaction with others upon admission to the hospital. Yet, after they started music therapy, the staff and patients alike witnessed Henry coming alive for the first time. Amazingly, he could recall his connection to the music he listened to when he was young as well as the types of music he liked, even to the extent of recalling and singing his favorite song.
When asked what music does to him, Henry replied romantically, “It gives me the feelings of love, romance. Figure right now, the world needs to come into music, singing. You got beautiful music here. Beautiful, oh, lovely… And I feel a band of love, of dreams,” a sentiment to which many music lovers can emphatically relate.
Among these stories are interviews with doctoral testimonies about the science behind personalized music therapy, enlightening viewers to the overpowering efficacy this method has over the current standard, unjust method of using expensive and ineffectual drugs to treat dementia. Dr. Oliver Sacks, a neurologist, divulges the scientific reasoning behind the method of music therapy, explaining that, “the parts of the brain which are involved in remembering music and responding to music are not affected too much in Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias.” By bringing out the emotions associated with the music deeply integrated within the patients’ pasts, the music stimulates their minds into remembering the memories associated with those emotions, that music, that specific song. In the words of Dr. Connie Tomaino, “By exciting or awakening those pathways, we have a gateway to stimulate and reach somebody who is otherwise unreachable.”
The film also brings to light the problematic way American nursing homes and, on some level the healthcare system as a whole, are run in the present day and age. Unfortunately, the method of eschewing standard forms of medication in favor of highly effective treatment through music is difficult to implement. Dr. Bill Thomas, a gerontologist from The Eden Alternative, frustratedly illustrates that, in the current American healthcare system, he could much more easily prescribe any number of overpriced drugs that won’t work, rather than give someone a cheap music player. Not only is music not considered as “medical intervention,” the process of medicating these people has also become a business, rather than an intent to cure a disease. Big-ticket, dubiously effective pills make large revenues. Useful MP3 players do not.
The exponential frequency of Alzheimer’s disease in the current time is a crisis and will only get worse from here. Statistically speaking, the number of elderly will increase at a drastic rate in the future and, over the age of sixty-five, the risk of getting Alzheimer’s doubles.
After the three years of filming it took to make this documentary, Cohen achieved getting access to personalized music for patients in fixty-six nursing homes. It sounds substantial at first, compared to the initial amount he started with (zero), but, on a bigger scale, the number fifty-six is only 0.19% of the 16,000 homes in the U.S. Through his nonprofit organization, Music & Memory, Cohen is spreading the word about his cause with the help of volunteers and donations. Through his website, people can sign up for training to become caregivers in this specific method of Music & Memory music therapy. Volunteers can also sign up to spread awareness about this cause and also to lead donation drives. Fortunately, with the exposure this documentary brought to his case, and through the kindness of others, Cohen’s organization has reached a point much further from where he was at the start. In fact, Cohen may very well reach his altruistic goal.
Article by Vivian Chen
Illustration by Miranda Hart