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'Alive Inside' doc shows how music can combat Alzheimers and dementia

A scene from the new film Alive Inside ... Mary Lou Thompson and Music & Memory's Dan Cohen
A scene from the new film Alive Inside ... Mary Lou Thompson and Music & Memory's Dan Cohen
Photo courtesy of BOND/360.
A scene from the new film Alive Inside ... Mary Lou Thompson and Music & Memory's Dan Cohen
Photo still from the upcoming film, "Alive Inside:
A scene from the new film Alive Inside ... Mary Lou Thompson and Music & Memory's Dan Cohen
A scene from the new film Alive Inside ... Mary Lou Thompson and Music & Memory's Dan Cohen
Poster art for the new film, Alive Inside

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It's rare that within the opening minutes of a documentary you can make an audience gasp, laugh and cry. But that's exactly what might happen if you go see "Alive Inside," a new film that won the audience award at Sundance and had its audience riveted. 

The documentary, filmed over a series of years, follows a social worker on his quest to give life and humanity back to nation's elders who are living out their days in sterile, institutional nursing homes.

Many have dementia or Alzheimers, most are forgotten and rarely get a visitor. Filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett lets his images do the most powerful talking as viewers see elder after elder spark awake when a pair of headphones with their favorite old-time songs are placed over their ears. 

We talked to Rossato-Bennett and Cohen more about the film, and what they hope will come out of it. 


Rossato-Bennett on how the inspiration for the film began:

"I never intended to make this film. There was a foundation, the Shelly and Donald Rubin Foundation, and they had just given Dan a grant. One of their employees asked me to do a website, and Dan apparently wanted video in the website. So, it was just a job. I was so moved by what I experienced that it took hold of me. When I saw what happened, when Dan and his people gave music, specifically to Henry, a 94-year-old man who was completely checked out, it just stunned me in a physical way."

It's kind of like a discovery, that music "wakes people up." Can you talk about that, Michael?

"Music therapists have known for 50 years that music is incredibly powerful, and it can reach people with dementia. What Dan was doing was novel, was absolutely personalizing it, like seeking the music that was the most important to these people when they were really young."

It looked like you were giving them a shot of a recreational drug, and they were awake. How did you come to this? Did you just one day put some headphones on someone in a nursing home and see them wake up?

Dan Cohen: "I'm a social worker, but I spent most of my life in technology companies, and in 2006, on the radio I heard a journalist talking about how iPods were ubiquitous, they're everywhere, and I thought, well, all the teenagers have them and a lot of us adults, but nursing homes? And if I'm ever in a nursing home, am I going to have access to my favorite '60s music?  So I Googled 'iPods and nursing homes,' and even though there are 16,000 nursing homes in the U.S. alone, I couldn't find one that was using iPods for their residents. I live in Long Island, I called up my local public facility nursing home, and I said 'I know music's already your number one recreational activity. You have live music, you have a lot of group music, but can we see if there's any added value if we were to totally personalize the music?' So they said, 'Sure' and I came in with my laptop and some iPods and it was just an instant hit."

It's an unusual strategy because Michael, as you show in the film, most often people in nursing homes are just medicated.

"Oh my god, yeah. It's an institutional setting, so if somebody kind of isn't happy and is unable to communicate, they really have very few options, and maybe they start screaming or maybe they start thrashing around. So what does the staff do? They're understaffed, they don't have time, they just write on the chart, 'This person needs something to calm them down.' Right now, 20 percent of people in nursing homes in America are on one form of antipsychotic or another. The problem is, first of all, these drugs are incredibly powerful and yet they're massively overprescribed. The U.S. government right now is even trying to reduce the use in nursing homes. Coler Goldwater is a large nursing home in New York City, did a study over three years where they gave personalized music to their residents, and they were able to reduce the use of antipsychotics in their facility from 38 percent to 13 percent."

Have you been able to, since the film came out, been able to get more support for getting this personal music system?

DC: "Absolutely, as families and nursing home administrators and government officials see the film, they want to apply it. They are open to this, and it's happening. In the state of Wisconsin, they just announced they were going to increase the number from 100 to 250 nursing homes. They're going to put it in all the nursing homes, and all the assisted living facilities in the state. Utah is replicating that, and Missouri and Alabama and Ohio are all queued up to do this. The Henry clip certainly was a pivotal moment in that sort of inflection.