“They’re very musical people, aren’t they?” quips Randolph in 1983’s Trading Places. While he intended it as a racial and/or economic generalization against the poor African-American man being given temporary wealthy status as a social experiment, this statement could be applied honestly and objectively to the whole human race. Such is the drive behind Michael Rossato-Bennett’s documentary Alive Inside.
However, this isn’t a catalogue of musical genres and dance styles throughout the ages. Instead, it examines the reaction that occurs when music is given to people the world has forgotten — nursing home residents and patients without family or visitors, suffering from dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, Multiple Sclerosis, and so on. Many of these people have withdrawn further and further from the world with each passing day, lacking meaningful social interaction and being remanded to a life in a very sterile, hospital-like setting from which they cannot exit willingly and have lost all control.
One such man sits slumped over in a wheelchair, clutching his hands, head down, eyes closed, avoiding interacting with anyone around him and not making so much as a peep himself. After just a few minutes with headphones, an iPod, and some Cab Calloway, he’s about ready to jump out of his seat. Eyes wide and full of life, he’s ready to answer questions about his favorite artists, songs, events of his childhood, fond memories, and more, all from just a few minutes of music.
Another man who carries a great deal of pent up anger and frustration with his clinical surroundings is perpetually on the verge of picking a fight over being told what to do. However, after a little bit of some music that he likes, he’s brought to tears and starts to remember all the great things about his life. Similarly, a woman who mentally struggles daily with simple tasks such as opening and closing doors, operating an elevator, or making food suddenly gets up and dances and displays an unusual level of cognitive clarity.
Music can elevate mood, lift spirits, get people to socialize who’ve been recluses for years, and all for a fraction of what prescription medications cost that have little or no effect on patients. It almost seems like a miracle cure for many, so why isn’t it catching on?
A combination of lack of funding and unwillingness to manage a music program at facilities has held back this program. Music isn’t considered a medical treatment, and as such, favoritism is given to drug plans where pharmaceutical and insurance companies win big. However, researcher Dan Cohen of MusicAndMemory.org is working to change that in grassroots fashion. When he had trouble drumming up clinical support for his program, he turned to posting videos of treatments and outcomes on Youtube. One such video was reposted to Reddit.com and the idea caught fire. A slew of comments flooded in from people with relatives in the same state as Cohen’s subjects, and wanted to know how they could get involved. Over the last few years, the program has started to garner attention and support, enough that it’s now included in hundreds of nursing homes and long-term care facilities across the United States and six other countries.
This 80-minute exploration of the research and the overwhelmingly positive outcomes will appeal to the humanity in anyone willing to watch. Those of us who’ve had to help family and friends through similar challenges will appreciate that there are people out there looking for ways to restore happiness to our elders who’ve lost almost everything in life. Rossato-Bennett and Cohen make it clear that from the womb to the grave, music is an integral and uniquely human part of who we are and what keeps the spark alive in each and every one of us.