Wednesday, January 14, 2015


Why is Johnny wide-eyed with astonishment?

Why is Mary Lou exultant?

Both of them are suffering from forms of dementia, and both of them are reacting to hearing their favorite music on iPods that they were given as part of a program to improve their mental health.  That's Dan Cohen, whose goal is to get customized iPods to people living in nursing homes across the United States, sitting with Mary Lou, above.

We would like to encourage all our readers to watch ALIVE INSIDE, a documentary by Michael Rossato-Bennett, about Dan's quest to convince nursing homes to give their patients music therapy through iPods.  Throughout the film, the viewer sees the highly positive effects of music on people suffering from dementia and Alzheimers disease.  You might know someone who could benefit from it.

Double click on the screen to bring it to full size.

Currently, five million people in the United States suffer from some form of dementia, and ten million people care for them.  With the elder population growing, the film points out, these numbers are bound to grow, and medication as the only treatment is not only not acceptable, it tends to isolate the patient rather than draw him or her back into the social circle.  "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 (who also advocates for visiting animals, which have been shown to animate patients).

Oliver Sacks (our favorite neurologist, and author of, among other books, Musicophilia and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat), interviewed for the movie, states that "Music has more ability to activate more parts of the brain" - including sight, hearing, emotions and physical coordination - "than any other stimulus."  "For patients with Alzheimers", he explains "it has to be music which has a meaning for them, and is correlated with memory and feeling."  Music therapy works where other therapies might not, he says, because "the parts of the brain which are involved in remembering and responding to music are not affected too much in Alzheimers disease or other dementias." (Patients with multiple sclerosis and Parkinsons also benefit from music therapy.)

Alive Inside records multiple instances of patients as they react to having the headphones placed on their heads and can hear music they are known to love.  One patient is Henry, who is introduced to viewers in a mostly unresponsive state, with his head down in his chair.  Here is Henry listening to gospel music:

The power of music should come as no surprise. Each of us has probably experienced our own autonomic trips down memory lane when a certain tune came on the radio (or really reaching back -- when it played on the juke box!) and we were transported to another place and time and remembered all kinds of things about a certain person, place or time that we thought were long forgotten. That this approach taps into feelings and emotions as well as memories and elicits responses in these patients is truly remarkable and life enhancing. It is so simple really ... and simply wonderful.

Another interviewee on Alive Inside is the ever inspired and inspiring Bobby McFerrin, shown in a clip taken at The World Science Festival demonstrating in his own inimitable way how everyone has an innate understanding of music.

Soooo much more we could tell you, but why don't you just watch the film? It's 77 minutes long.  There are a few spots in the above You Tube version where the sound gets cut out, but that's good, really - maybe that's all the encouragement you'll need to buy a copy of the DVD to support the iPod program. And if you'd like to learn more about Dan Cohen's program, click this link to Music and Memory.  If you are moved by the documentary, you might want to donate an old iPod, purchase a new iPod (we did!), or even buy thirty tunes, for Dan's program.   Here's how.  (Or you can volunteer!)

Johnny had tears in his eyes after Dan gave him his iPod.  And he'd been dancing in his wheel chair.


  1. As you said, simply wonderful. Music is so emotional. xo

  2. The timing of this post is absolutely perfect - I watched the documentary a few weeks ago and found it incredibly moving and informative. One of our professors here where I work gave a public talk this week about the effect of music on people with dementia and has referenced this film. Everyone needs to watch it!!

  3. Thank you so much for telling us about this film. I laughed and cried and felt such joy watching it. It's an amazing thing and offers to much hope. I'm going to be sending the link to friends and encouraging them to watch it, too. Thank you!
    jill in Ontario