"Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory" is a 2014 documentary following a social worker named Dan Cohen in his effort to bring music therapy to patients with Alzheimer's and dementia. His tools for this effort are simplistic -- a small portable music player and a set of inexpensive headphones. The results are nothing short of miraculous.
The movie was a winner at the Sundance Film Festival and is directed by Michael Roassato-Bennett. The first time director profiles the work of Cohen as he delves into the looming question of healthcare for the aged and the possibility of selected musical tracks enabling a person to regain memory function and, in some cases, restoring a sense of dignity.
Personalized music. It's a simple concept with profound results.
Take Henry for example. He is 92, nearly catatonic, and hunched over in a chair as his daughter (whom he does not recognize) begins to ask him questions. An iPod shuffle with a small set of headphones is placed on Henry's head. A button is pushed and music begins to play -- music that he is familiar with that hearkens back to his youth when (as his daughter recalls) he would spend hours singing and dancing. Henry is suddenly gloriously alive and wide-eyed. His feet tap. His hands move in rhythm.
It's as if a light switch has been turned on inside this man.
The transformation is just remarkable.
Very quickly, Henry's memories return. One minute he doesn't recognize his own family member and, once the music has played, he is recalling his youth selling papers to earn income, declaring his love for music, his hope for the world, as well as, unexpectedly, breaking into the signature scat-singing of his favorite Cab Calloway tune. It is priceless.
In the film, Dr. Oliver Sacks quotes the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, who called music "the quickening art." He explains that the part of the brain that deals with music is one of the very last parts that falls victim to dementia and that music is, in essence, a back door to the mind.
And, ultimately, the strategy for Dan Cohen is a simple one.
Ask a few questions to family members of elderly patients in nursing homes:
What songs did they love when they were 18?
What songs were their absolute favorites?
Cohen purchases those specific songs on iTunes, loads them on an MP3 player, puts the headphones on the patients and pushes the play button. Time after time, we see undeniable transformation happen right before our eyes.
And, as I mentioned, this movie is all too familiar.
I watched my mom slip away slowly into dementia in the late 1990s. I'm sure many of you reading this have been through similar situations. It's a cruel process, seeing the familiar become distant in a loved one.
I'll never forget a conversation we had at the wedding of one of my nieces. We were in the midst of a conversation, she turned away, and when she turned back to me my mom said, "Now, you are the man that brought the flowers today, right?" She didn't recognize me. I grabbed her hand gently and said, "No, Mom, I'm your son." Ouch.
I do remember near the end of her life, the hymns that she sang as a young girl being the familiar places in the midst of forgetfulness. Family would gather singing "Amazing Grace," "In the Garden," or "At the Cross." She would know those words when she could recall nothing else. It was her foundation. Music. Memory.
"Alive Inside" is currently available on Amazon and Hulu.
'Paul Crutcher is the broadcast specialist and XLR Radio general manager at Lander University. He serves on the national governing board for College Broadcasters Inc., the largest representation of college radio and television stations in the country. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulCrutcher.