Nell practices scales on her kitchen table, pounding out piano concertos against the floral tablecloth. Even though her memory has started to melt away, her muscles can still twitch in time as she listens to a recording of herself playing. Alzheimer’s might have her mind, but it can’t have her music.
According to social worker Dan Cohen, music is a means to reacquaint the elderly with their lost memories and fight their emotional decline, especially for the millions of Americans in nursing homes who don’t have the option of staying at home. He’s the founder of nonprofit organization Music & Memory, and he fundraises in order to provide personalized music for nursing home residents.
His crusade is documented in Alive Inside, a film by Michael Rossato-Bennett, who came to Stanford earlier this quarter to screen the documentary and speak with the Stanford community.
“Whenever you experience something that moves you to your core that you know no one in the world knows about, that’s all the inspiration it takes,” said Rossato-Bennett in a phone interview, on why he decided to follow Cohen and turn his work into a documentary. After seeing Cohen put headphones on a man named Henry and watching the 94-year-old dementia patient awaken out of his normally listless and unengaged state, Rossato-Bennett decided to use his medium to bring awareness to Cohen’s work.
“When I experienced Henry waking up in front of me, I knew that this is something people didn’t know,” he said. “They didn’t know that these people are alive in very real ways. It’s one thing to tell someone that, but it’s another thing to show.”
I can use words like “awakening” to describe Henry’s reaction, but the word feels weak and insufficient to express the revelation that Rossato-Bennett is able to capture on film. In a single shot he is able to show the capacity of art, to affect his viewer’s sense of compassion, and prove that music could provide an unlikely antidote to yet-unsolved diseases. But don’t take my word for it — watch the clip below of Henry’s awakening, which went viral and helped fund the rest of the documentary.
Awarded the Audience Award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, the film takes case studies of individuals living in American nursing homes, walking the audience through some of the endemic psychological problems that occur for these people, especially for those with diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Dr. Bill Thomas, a gerontologist and an advocate for nursing home reform who provides an expert medical opinion in the film, explains that the healthcare system treatment imagines people as “complicated machines.”
“We have medicines that can adjust the dials, but we haven’t done anything medically speaking to touch the heart and soul of the patient,” he says. Scientists have found that engaging with music causes the brain to light up, especially the areas that correspond to pleasure, movement, and memory.
“What we’re spending on drugs that mostly don’t work dwarfs what it would take to deliver personal music to every nursing home resident in America,” says Thomas in the film. “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.”
We live in a culture that glorifies youth in all its recklessness, independent rebelliousness and myths of infallibility. Alive Inside forces its audience to confront the visceral reactions associated with aging — due to the smells, the memento mori, the pediatric shoes, the fear of the once-sharp mind deteriorating — by centering the camera on the unavoidable, crackling faces of its subjects. There is no looking away. During the film, I found myself staring in fascination at the rippling wrinkled skin of the elderly, fascinated by their cavernous faces, with pockets of skin big enough to catch raindrops mid-fall. When their faces were headphone-framed and the music of their past was playing, the skin around their mouths would shift, activated by memory and the simple joy of recognition, so often denied to them by the disintegration of their brains. But most telling was the change in their eyes. To watch a human being change from a state of unresponsiveness, of living death, to a place of recognition and resonance? I found myself trying not to cry.
The film presents music not as a cure-all or a replacement for drugs, but as a means of healing the soul. And with the way the nursing homes are portrayed, it’s no wonder their captives need a way to reconnect with their memories in order to maintain a sense of emotional whole. Imagine living in a hospital, with the smell of acidic cleanliness and the uniformed nurses and the lack of privacy. Imagine that the doors to the outside world are locked. And for patients with degenerative diseases that have no cure, the part of the brain that understands music is affected only during the last stages of the disease, meaning that it can act as a backdoor to lost memory.
In a post-screening discussion earlier this quarter, Rossatto-Bennett demonstrated the strength of the connection between music and memory by asking us to share some memories of our own. I was immediately back in the car with my mother. We were driving to Stanford for the first time, blasting the music from Ragtime, my favorite musical, and singing our way up the 5. One elderly man stood up and explained that when he was young, his alcoholic father would come home late and channel his liquor-fueled energy into the piano, pounding out jazz tunes from the 40s and 50s as his young son hid under the grand instrument and listened. Rossatto-Bennett’s demonstration provided another avenue to connect with the film, to think about all the music that will trigger my memory when my hair eventually turns gray.
While the film’s affective, moving message worked to its strength, it lacked the finesse of a more seasoned director. The nuance of what it means to live in a nursing home was glossed over in order to support Rossatto-Bennett’s unilateral message. Still, his point hit home, hard, and while Alive Inside is a sentimental film at its heart, its affective power is helping to fund Cohen’s nonprofit. The number of homes Cohen has been able to gift individual music players for each of their residents has grown from three to hundreds. And Cohen’s not done yet. He’s working on building an app that will help people connect with their older relatives and friends through music.
“Music and all that it points to, and other things, lead to a more connected way of living,” said Rossato-Bennett. “That connection is where we will find safety moving forward.”
Photos courtesy of Bond 360