Alive Inside: new hope for Alzheimer’s patients
Last night we saw a moving and inspiring documentary film, Alive Inside. It profiles a social worker who uses music to help patients with Alzheimer’s disease reconnect with the world. A complete review of the film can be found here.
The social worker, Dan Cohen, has founded a nonprofit agency called Music and Memory. He visits nursing home patients and provides them with iPods programmed with their favorite music, music they had loved and remembered from their younger days.
The transformation is stunning. A man who could barely speak and only answered “Yes” or “No” questions begins listening to music he had loved all his life. His eyes grow huge; he begins to sway and tap to the music and soon becomes articulate, talking about what music means to him and how much he loves it.
A woman with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia gets up without the support of her cane and begins to dance with Cohen.
(Photo from "Alive Inside: A Story of Memory and Music")
Two women with dementia who are being cared for by their husbands are provided with personalized music. They dance and sing along and begin to retrieve memories that had been lost. They have been able to stay in their own homes longer because of the positive effect the music has had on them.
The film brought tears to my eyes many times, remembering my mother and those she lived with at her facility. There was a man who had once been a musician with a wonderful singing voice but who now could barely speak. Yet at times he would spontaneously break into a song. The unit, staff, and visitors would be transfixed listening to him sing his favorites: the hymn “How Great Thou Art” and “Wind Beneath My Wings.” He remembered every word.
When my husband and I have gone Christmas caroling at nursing homes, we’ve seen first hand how people with dementia react. Some who look as though they are disconnected from the world will tap their fingers or nod their heads, even sing along with us. Many of them have tears in their eyes. When we’ve finished they grasp our hands and thank us so heartily for being there.
The neurologist Oliver Sacks appears in the film, explaining that the parts of the brain that process music are left untouched much longer than other areas by the plaques and tangles of Alzheimer’s. Music that is familiar to and loved by the person reaches not only that part of the brain but also his or her very soul.
We’ve all experienced the power of music to affect our emotions and our memories. We all have special songs that take us back to particular places, times, events in our lives. But have we ever thought that a person with almost complete obliteration of memory could be affected in the same way?
The film also shows the frustrations Cohen has had to deal with in trying to find ways to bring his program to more people. He complains that millions of dollars are spent on medications that are often ineffective, yet very few people—not just government agencies but even administrators of nursing homes themselves—are willing to put faith and money into a program like this that produces such measurable and just about universal results. Because of his film, though, things are beginning to change, and he has been able to reach an increasing number of facilities with his simple and effective method.
This is a important film that should be widely distributed and widely seen. That may not happen through the conventional network of movie theaters; we saw it in a small art-film house that we’re lucky to have here in Providence. Fortunately, it will be on iTunes and on Netflix and DVD in October. I hope it will inspire much faster and wider adoption of this program.
In the meantime, this might provide a way for those of us who have a loved one in care for Alzheimer’s or dementia to make a real difference in our loved ones’ lives.
Program an iPod with your loved one’s favorite music and bring it to him or her with a pair of headphones.
See if it makes a difference in his or her alertness and attitude. See if a person who becomes easily agitated will calm down. See if a person who is passive and nonverbal will “awaken” and show some response.
Music and Memory needs donations: of used iPods or of cash for iPods or to pay for the music to put on them. The page for donations can be found here.
I'd be really happy if any of you who read this will share it on Facebook and other social media so that as many people as possible can learn about this marvelous and hopeful program. Thanks to you all for reading and caring.