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Social worker Dan Cohen is the founder of an organization called Music & Memory, which brings personal music players (typically iPods) to people with Alzheimer’s disease. Cohen asked filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett to follow him as he went to various nursing homes, trying to bring one-on-one “music therapy” to sufferers of dementia. Little did Bennett know that this side-project would soon turn into a documentary, Alive Inside, which would become the hit of Sundance and spark a viral craze of hope and compassion.
In recent years, Alzheimer’s disease and its victims have been depicted in many Hollywood films and television shows. However, these efforts have rarely provided real insight into the human story of the disease, much less any focus on hope for treating it.
For example, the 2011 film Friends with Benefits is a romantic-comedy whose premise carries just as much depth as its title suggests. Films of this well-worn genre frequently encounter a problem about halfway into the second act – they are just too darn funny. The solution? Throw in a parent, sibling, relative or friend (anyone, really, since it typically carries no real consequence to the overall story) and give them an unquestionably heart wrenching disease that will turn the upbeat tone into one of sympathetic poignancy and, hopefully, give the film some weight. And, by the way, if you don’t feel what you’re supposed to feel, well then, you’re just a heartless monster.
So, in Friends with Benefits, one of the main characters, Dylan, has a father with Alzheimer’s. Since this sub-plot of what is otherwise a romantic comedy doesn’t have a lot to do with the overall plot or the characters’ development, one might say that the portrayal of Dylan’s father’s condition (e.g., a scene in a restaurant where his father has forgotten he has been divorced for 10 years, and becomes wildly agitated when he’s reminded) is in the movie simply as a ploy for poignancy. As such, in a way, it trivializes the condition. (Am I being a heartless monster to suggest that?)
I suppose the other side of the spectrum would be films where the tragedy of the disease overwhelms the entire story.
Representing this disease with compassion, without being sappy, and accuracy, without being coldly clinical, is not an easy task.
As such, when I had the opportunity to speak with Rossato-Bennett I instantly expressed just how shocked and grateful I was to finally see, in Alive Inside, a film on Alzheimer’s and dementia that is both informative and uplifting. To this he responded:
“There’s a huge tradition, documentary tradition, of being a watchdog in a way. It’s showing the world problems that they don’t see. It’s igniting action through empathy. But the problem is right now in the world is that there are so many problems that people kind of shut down and they’re overwhelmed by the scope of the problems facing us. And actually our social structures have sort of shut down in a way… So it doesn’t seem to help to shock people into action. What really happens is people get shocked and depressed and then they kind of hover for a moment and then they turn on a movie or something.”
So how did Bennett’s film turn from the dark, tragedy filled we’ve seen before to the informative and uplifting documentary focusing on the human rather than the patient? And what caused this change?
“Honestly, I have Henry (an Alzheimer’s patient shown in the film) to thank for this. I was making a film with a model for a documentary film that I rode up in, but then the Henry clip went viral worldwide in an accidental way and it was never intended to be seen by anyone, just like I never thought this film would be seen by anyone. But the response to the Henry clip was so profound.”
Bennett was referring to someone who is perhaps the most popular subject of the documentary. Henry, 94 at the time, had spent the past decade of his life as a resident of the Cobble Hill nursing home, and was one of the five million people in America suffering from dementia. Henry usually spends his days in what could easily be confused as a catatonic state: unresponsive and entirely shut-off from the world. Then one day, Dan Cohen and Rossato-Bennett came to visit.
Dan puts a set of headphones on Henry so he can hear the 1940s and gospel music that he grew up with. What happens next is nothing short of miraculous. It would be hard to believe it if you did not see it with your own eyes. Instantly, Henry comes to life. He begins to tap his fingers and bob his head to the rhythm and even sings along to Cab Calloway’s I’ll be Home for Christmas. He then progresses to share detail after detail about his life.
Rossato-Bennett exposes us to dozens of other people like Henry, all having similar, yet all unique, reactions to their music. John, a quiet Army veteran begins dancing in his wheelchair as the sound of the Andrew Sisters fill his ears. Denise, a bipolar schizophrenic tosses her walking frame away and proceeds to dance as the sounds of Schubert flow from her headphones and through her mind and body.
Rossato-Bennett consults with several medical professionals and experts in the field of aging. Alzheimer’s first attacks the hippocampus, the area of the brain where the majority of memory is stored. However, music – called by many a “backdoor to the mind” – is not stored in the hippocampus alone. When music enters the brain it stimulates numerous different parts at once and at so many different levels. Because these other areas of the brain are largely the last to be affected by Alzheimer’s, music still holds the power to fire off these synapse fireworks of communications. Essentially, because our brain reacts to and stores music in such a unique way, it gives a brain crippled by dementia access to memories they would otherwise have no access to.
Unfortunately, many– if not most – of the facilities meant to care for people like Henry do not see value in investing time and money into musical therapy. Gerontologist and advocate for long-term care reform, Dr. Bill Thomas, MD, says:
“What we’re spending on drugs that mostly don’t work [for dementia] dwarfs what it would take to deliver personal music to every nursing home resident in America. I can sit down and write a prescription for a $1,000 a month antidepressant, no problem. Personal music doesn’t count as a medical intervention. The real business, trust me, is in the pill bottle.”
Without question, iPods are not the cure-all vaccine for dementia. Nor is there a clear and easy solution to bringing musical therapy to more of the five million affected by this disease. Nevertheless, this film shows us that this approach can help, frequently wonderfully and miraculously.
As a film, Alive Inside is, perhaps, not perfect. For example, there are many different people in the film who basically make the same point about the possibilities of music therapy, and that can be a little repetitive. That’s an extremely minor point, though. The film focuses on Dan Cohen’s effort to bring this therapy to patients in nursing homes across the country. In doing so, filmmaker Rossato-Bennett provides information about the nursing home system, the obstacles Cohen faces, and how he is gradually overcoming those obstacles.
But the core of this film’s emotional impact is with the patients. Their reactions to – and improvements with – this therapy is an absolutely thrilling and uplifting thing to see.
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