Alive Inside

February 2, 2017

With our aging demographics and the increase in dementia diagnoses, it seems as though this documentary should be required viewing for all adults. We may have someone in our own family or we may have visited a nursing home and seen a resident slumped in their wheelchair, eyes closed or unfocused, and not interacting with any other residents. Often these folks are nonverbal. And you silently offer a prayer that you do not end up this way.

 

This film follows social worker, Daniel Cohen, as he visits nursing homes and tries to “waken” these folks with music. He attempts to find out something about the patient and use music from the era of their young adult years to rouse them. One example from this film has been viewed thousands of times on YouTube: this elderly man has his eyes closed as he slumps in his wheelchair and many staff members have never heard him speak. Cohen puts earphones on him and plays some New Orleans jazz, having noted from his file that he lived in the New Orleans area in his youth. The reaction is amazing! The man’s eyes fly open, he sits up in his chair and begins speaking rapid-fire. He’s been reached!

 

A short segment of the film shows Oliver Sacks talking about the relationship between the brain and music. “The past which is not recoverable in any other way is embedded, as if in amber, in the music, and people can regain a sense of identity.” — Oliver Sacks. This link is something I noticed years ago in an adult day care setting. One of the patients had severe impairments following a massive stroke. He had been a very successful surgeon who now did not speak, could not feed himself and seemed to get little from the program. Music was a part of the program, often the oldies but goodies that we associate with our parents’ heyday. But one day, someone played music from an opera and this patient broke into song, singing the words in Italian! If I hadn’t been there that day to see this, I am not sure I would have fully believed a report from a staff member.

 

There are other scenarios including two women who are cared for at home by their spouses. In one case, the woman is nonverbal and seems worried and agitated. She is a little younger than Cohen’s nursing home patients are. He first tries some Beatles music on her, but she becomes more irritated and pushes him away. He switches to the Beach Boys and the woman looks alert and begins snapping her fingers. She even begins dancing, leaving the comfort of her sofa where one imagines she has spent her day in agitated silence.

 

My husband seldom wants to watch any film that features a social worker as he fears he will be depressed. I was a social worker for much of my working years and he feels he has heard enough horror stories to last a lifetime. But he was very impressed with this film, impressed to the point that he asked family to donate to Music and Memories (Cohen’s foundation) as birthday gifts.

 

This film was shown at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival where it won the Audience Award. You can see it on the Sundance Channel, Hulu and YouTube if you don’t have Netflix. Interacting with dementia patients lessens the need for psychotropic drugs with their side effects. The Music and Memories Foundation provides earphones and I-pads to patients. There are 5.2 million Alzheimer’s patients in this country and probably more that are not counted. I keep remembering the speaker at a conference who said we are all living longer and the chance of Alzheimer’s increases with age. It is reassuring to learn that we are making progress in breaking through the fog of dementia.

 

~Diane Snell

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