Must See Documentary
It is rare, perhaps once every decade, that a film simply leaps off the screen and demands your rapt attention. Alive Inside is such a film.
The documentary about the promise and potential of using music as a therapeutic approach to reach those afflicted with dementia is powerful, and awe-inspiring. In a nation of 5 million people with significant cognitive impairment due to Alzheimer’s, we’ve all met people just like Henry and Mary Lou and Denise and Johnny. We’ve felt their frustration and endured their pain. The film’s message and impact touches us all.
Perhaps Alive Inside can teach us to reach those in an endless fog and re-connect. Even if the benefit is fleeting and lasts for but an instant, it is worth the effort to try…and to keep on trying.
Here are thoughts about the film from UCH employees.
We have music for every occasion in our lives—birthdays, holidays, special times, celebrations. Music embodies the events and relationships we cherish. These memories become etched in our brains, only to be awakened when we hear that one song that brings it back to life for us.
I recently watched the film Alive Inside, which documents a program designed to engage nursing facility residents with their favorite music and, ultimately, re-awaken them. The personalized music can tap into their deep memories and literally bring residents back to life, feeling like themselves again. The residents begin to communicate, to socialize and to be present in their own lives again.
Any tool that can be applied to assist our efforts to reduce anti-psychotic medications is a good thing. If the same tool can help create happier and more sociable residents, it’s inspiring.
When we use music to promote individual memories, and encourage and support the individual in us all, we not only bring joy to those affected, we also provide a quality of caring that supports the whole person. We take a genuine step toward a concept of culture change that is both realistic and complete. It inspires optimism about what can be done!
Turn Back Time
I was torn between running out and being glued to my seat. Not because Alive Inside wasn’t riveting, but because it was. There were times I could not breathe.
The single most important thing I must do is go home RIGHT NOW, armed with headphones and music, so I can speak to my grandfather again. Not the shell of who he is now, but of who he used to be. There are a million questions I still need to ask, the ones I never thought to ask before.
I also want my grandma back, because she raised me on music and Jesus, and I know her music would jar her memory, if I’d only thought to use it sooner.
If I could get grandpa to remember who he is, or who my father is, it would be like giving time back to a man who lost it far too soon. If it is all that simple—if music can indeed return him for a single moment—then what other miracles await?
A Personal Response
Alive Inside is almost too simple to believe: elders isolated from memory loss can be unlocked through listening to their favorite tunes. With scientific explanation accompanying the emotional images of Henry and others, we are moved to believe it is true.
The film’s real tension, however, rests in the background story of how this simple idea is resisted in our systems of care for the elderly. Dan Cohen’s persistence to introduce this complementary care within the medical model of nursing homes is troubling—particularly for those of us who are a part of that system.
However, we are not left in the despair of that tension, as we are shown the infectious response of younger generations who see Henry’s YouTube clip and immediately begin to download music for their similarly impaired loved ones.
The message? Even if systems are resistant, we can make a difference one elder at a time.
My personal response? I bought a set of ear phones and took them to share some music with my friend Bob. His response wasn’t dramatic like Henry, but I did see a glimpse of the Bob I haven’t seen in a while!
Inside Alive Inside
In addition to a private screening of the film Alive Inside, United Church Homes also benefited from a 40-minute interactive question and-answer session with Dan Cohen, founder and executive director of Music & Memory, the individual whose organization is featured in the documentary.
Dan also agreed to answer questions for inclusion in this issue of Spirit magazine. Here are excerpts from that interview.
Spirit: How much trial and error was involved before you knew you were on to something significant?
Dan Cohen: I knew I had “something,” but wasn’t sure how much that something meant. What I looked for was response of long-term care staff to the outcomes being generated. Over time, as they became increasingly enthused, I better understand the significance of people’s reaction to (and enjoyment of) the music.
Spirit: What was the core inspiration that convinced you to actively pursue developing a documentary film? Was it emotional or intellectual?
Cohen: When I started and would try to describe the changes I was seeing from residents, the response I got from those I told was, “How nice that you are giving old people music.” I learned that because everyone is their own expert on music, it was almost impossible to convey the extraordinary responses I was seeing. So I sought a filmmaker to document just a few minutes of this. From there I wanted to document different individuals who reacted so well to the music and then the filmmaker said we have a documentary here.
Spirit: Did you ever think the film would elicit such an incredible response?
Cohen: The goal from the beginning was to create public awareness of the power of music. I had no idea exactly how effective the movie would be and how well it has resonated with so many, for so many different reasons.
Spirit: What other therapeutic approaches have you seen thus far that are most complementary to music? That offer different, but substantive potential?
Cohen: According to the Ohio Director of Aging, “sitting is the new smoking.” Exercise is so important, but typically that’s not what happens for anyone in a nursing home. The music helps motivate people to move and get that exercise. Rehabilitation is one. Depression and anxiety are rampant in long-term care. Social workers can utilize music to reduce dependence medications meant to help with mood and behavior. Art therapy and music therapy go hand in hand. When people are listening to their favorite music while creating artwork, the process is enhanced.
Spirit: Why do you suppose there’s so much resistance to the underlying message?
Cohen: I presume you’re referring to the…resistance to adopting personalized music? If so, I think all organizations are slow to make changes, even if they are low cost. It takes a champion to facilitate change.
Spirit: Imagine you can enact any change you can dream up—what would Dan Cohen’s dream world look like?
Cohen: I actually ask the same question of dementia care experts…what ideally does a day look like for someone with more advanced dementia? To me the optimal result is one that promotes relationships and from those relations are activities and interactions that are rewarding and life affirming.
Spirit: Do you envision Music & Memory as the starting point of other ways to engage this population, or as an end point that improves their lives, even if only momentarily?
Cohen: I think we are still learning about new ways to integrate personalized music into the lives of those who can benefit. It might help someone who is anxious to eat or bathe; it might help someone reconnect with their religious background; or keep better connected with family and friends. Music & Memory also is using iPads in nursing homes to bring the many benefits they offer to residents and staff.