Primal peoples regarded music, drumming, singing, and dancing as a major foundation in their lives. Only recently have scientists studied the brain and discovered the intense pleasure we get from music. It results in emotional arousal including changes in heart, pulse, and breathing rates.
In her book Music Medicine, Christine Stevens asks us: "Have you ever gotten goose bumps from a powerful piece of music? Have you ever been moved to tears by the words of a song that expresses how you feel? Have you ever had a song magically play on the radio just when you needed it most?"
If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, then you are ready to experience Alive Inside, an extraordinary documentary directed by Michael Rossato-Bennet. For three years he followed social worker Dan Cohen around as he brought personalized music on IPods to elders in nursing homes. The film presents a daunting look at the sad state of affairs in some of these institutions where patients are over-medicated on anti-psychotic drugs.
Cohen's breakthrough comes after meeting Henry, a 94-year-old dementia patient who has spent the last decade of his life slumped in a chair in a hallway. As soon as Cohen slips the earphones on the patient, he sits up, his eyes come into focus, and he starts singing along with Cab Calloway, the jazz singer from yesteryear. Such transformations are replicated in one patient after another. Denise, a bipolar schizophrenic, hearing some music that appeals to her, stands up and dances with vigor. John, a quiet Army veteran, gets rejuvenated listening to the Andrew Sisters. For each of these elders, music is good medicine for the soul, and thanks to the kindness of Cohen, they come alive listening to their favorite songs.
Director Michael Rossato-Bennett makes good use of two other experts in this documentary. The renowned neurologist and bestselling author Oliver Sacks points out that familiar music imprints itself on the brain, bringing emotions and memories to the fore. He is totally behind Cohen's nonprofit organization Music & Memory which is spearheading attempts to convince the nation's 65,000 nursing homes to get on board with the goal of delivering personalized music to every nursing home patient in America.
Also featured is Dr. Bill Thomas, an extremely articulate and convincing gerontologist and advocate for long-term care. He gives a brief history of the elder care system, its reliance upon drugs, and its resistance to change. Currently there are not enough doctors to handle the growing number of senior citizens and the increasing number of Americans — 5 to 10 million — expected to be suffering from dementia in the next ten years. A final spokesperson for the healing power of music is Bobby McFerrin ("Don't Worry, Be Happy").
The director of Alive Inside posted a clip of Henry on the Music & Memory website and in one week almost 7 million people watched it (see "Related Content"). In addition, the film won the Documentary Audience Award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. All this goes to prove that the Sufi master Hazrat Inayat Khan was right when he said, "If one can focus one's heart on music, it is just like warming something that was frozen. The heart returns to its natural condition."
• If you have been brought to tears by Alive Inside, we have just the book for you. It explores the soulful depths of music: The Musical Life: Reflections on What It Is and How to Live It by W. A. Mathieu. He says that being musical has nothing to do with knowing how to play an instrument or to sing in tune. It is "a way of being aware, an angle of perception, a tilt of the ear."
• If you want to see a similar film on how music can affect memory, watch The Music Never Stopped. Gabriel is a young man with a brain tumor who is in a long-term care facility. A music therapist decides to work with him and makes a breakthrough by playing the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love." The screenplay is by Oliver Sacks, and it does a marvelous job conveying the bonds that are formed through the sharing of music between Gabriel and his conservative father. The transformative power of rock songs comes across loud and clear in this emotionally affecting film.
• If you want to preview some of the difficulties involved in placing a parent in a nursing home, watch The Savages. A brother and sister visit their father who they were never close to: now he is a vulnerable old man suffering from dementia and needing to live in a nursing home.
• If you have a desire to see how others have handled the considerable challenges of Alzheimer's, here are some recommended films. All three were honored as a Most Spiritually Literate Film of the Year.
Away From Her is a subtle, poignant, and superbly acted drama about a long marriage that is tested externally by the disease of Alzheimer's and internally by the chords of attachment.
First Cousin Once Removed is one of the best documentaries ever made on Alzheimer's. It revolves around a series of interviews with poet and professor Edward Honig, who has been robbed of his identity by the disease.
A Song For Martin revolves around Martin, a conductor, who disappears into himself as Alzheimer's slowly destroys his mind and the remnants of his former life. His wife Barbara becomes his caretaker, and it is a huge task.