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Bringing the Elderly Back to Life with Music

By Michael Cook

Caring for patients with dementia will probably be one of the biggest human dignity issues of our century, as the proportion of elderly grows across the globe. It seems disgraceful to warehouse them in nursing homes, but often there are few alternatives.

So I was really delighted to see a ray of light in a new documentary, Alive Inside, which won the 2014 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award for an American documentary. It features the power of music to raise patients out of their torpor. Sometimes the effect of placing earphones and an iPod on an unresponsive patient slumped in a wheelchair is little short of miraculous.

This solution is being promoted with missionary zeal by Dan Cohen, a technology consultant who has founded a group called Music & Memory.

One wonderful clip from the film features Henry, who spends his days in an almost catatonic state in a 600-bed nursing home. But when Dan places the earphones on his head and he hears the music from a favourite artist of his youth, Cab Calloway (famous for “Minnie the Moocher”), he begins to answer questions, his eyes light up, and he even gives a short speech:

It gives the feeling of love, romance! I figure right now the world needs to come into music, singing. You’ve got beautiful music here. Beautiful. Lovely. I feel band of love, of dreams. The Lord came to me, made me holy. I’m a holy man. So he gave me these sounds.

There are many such moments in the film. The joy on the face of patients will bring tears to your eyes.

The film also critiques over-reliance on anti-psychotic medications for demented patients. “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 Dr. Bill Thomas, a charismatic gerontologist. (What does it say about our view of the elderly that this sounds like an oxymoron?) “I can sit down and write a prescription for a US $1,000 a month antidepressant, no problem. Personal music doesn’t count as a medical intervention. The real business, trust me, is in the pill bottle.”

Obviously iPods and Cab Calloway playlists alone will not turn dementia around; individually and collectively the issue is far more complex than this. But this uplifting documentary at least shows that some simple solutions work.

You cannot watch Alive Inside without asking questions about the future of old age in our society. Why do we have massive nursing homes, where half the residents may get no visitors, where most live lives of boredom, helplessness, and loneliness? Henry was lucky; his daughter visited him fairly often. Others are completely alone in the world. How can these institutions be transformed into places where the residents are seen as human beings first and patients second?

Perhaps, as Dr. Bill Thomas suggests, there is something fundamentally wrong with the way that America (and similar societies like Canada and Australia) view the elderly. The pinnacle of our lives is adulthood, the time when we are independent, self-sufficient, and, above all, productive. Adults are supposed to work like machines. And just as superannuated machines are scrapped, the elderly end up hidden in nursing homes. Thomas argues that we need to recover the notion of what he calls “elderhood,” the stage of life where people continue to produce, even though what are producing is wisdom and love rather than widgets.

Are developed societies ready for the epidemic of dementia? Already there are 35 million people over 65 in the US and that number will double by 2030. Are these dehumanising nursing homes the answer?

Alive Inside asks more questions than it can answer. In the end it is about how music supports our humanity. Director Michael Rossato-Bennett says that his life was transformed by making it. “I hope it will bring the story of Dan’s work to the world and awaken hearts and minds to the healing power of music. Music has great lessons to teach us about what it means to be human. I learned that from the sweet and vulnerable souls I met making this film.“

Through music, we have the power to help millions of people awaken to who they are and what they can be,” he adds. “Music gives us the ability to reach a population that might otherwise be unreachable. It allows us to touch hearts and ignite souls. Through music, we can help the old and the aging sustain their humanity and by doing so, inevitably, we’ll prove our own.”

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. 

This article has been reprinted with permission and can be found at