A couple of years ago a video appeared on YouTube showing how music on an iPod transformed Henry, a 94-year-old man suffering from dementia, from near catatonia to a stunning reawakening as he sings along with his favorite performer, Cab Calloway. It went viral, was watched by nearly 1.5 million people, and received about 2,000 comments.
It looks like a miracle cure. It isn’t.
Michael Rossato-Bennett’s documentary profiles the inventor of the technique, Dan Cohen, a social worker who hopes to revolutionize the treatment of dementia by putting headphones on the afflicted and playing for them the music they loved in their youth. He demonstrates its effectiveness on Henry and some others, and in each case it brings a formerly disturbed, confused or vegetative patient back to life — singing, dancing, shedding tears of joy and gratitude.
Well, more power to him, and best of luck with his nonprofit program Music & Memory, which so far has brought this therapy to 500 nursing homes across the country. But it’s just a drop in the bucket, as one interviewee puts it, in a system that includes thousands of facilities. With persistence and philanthropic donations, however, Cohen hopes his idea becomes accepted and implemented more and more, and no doubt that will improve the quality of life, temporarily at least, for some of the 5 million people now suffering from the malady.
Unfortunately, though, Rossato-Bennett and Cohen seem to think that the technique is a panacea. In fact, it is not even original, as music therapy in nursing homes has been around for some time. Cohen’s innovation lies in the use of iPods and personalized music. That can have the powerful positive effect demonstrated in the movie, but it also can eliminate the communal spirit evoked when such therapy is conducted in groups. IPods tend not to engage people with the world around them, but make them more withdrawn. Or so it would seem from all those people you see wearing earbuds and immersed in their own little world
Rossato-Bennett and Cohen also suggest that in some golden age nursing homes were really homes, and old people, regardless of their cognitive deterioration, were treated with the respect elders deserved. Then came Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal and Lyndon Johnson and Medicaid and the resultant mass treatment of the elderly, their individuality ignored and their spirits numbed by medication. Well, if it is a mass problem involving millions of people, perhaps mass treatment might be the best alternative. As for the reliance on drugs, the powerful pharmaceutical industry might be a more likely culprit than FDR or LBJ.
And that’s where “Alive Inside” goes wrong as a movie as well. It becomes instead an infomercial, with spokespeople such as Oliver Sacks testifying that, yes. music indeed has a primal and beneficent effect on the human mind. The voice-over narration grows increasingly hucksterish and bathetic, dementia sufferers are reduced to generic images in uplifting montages, and the film begins to resemble an ad pitching some dubious charity or a retirement community.
It makes Cohen look like he’s selling snake oil, when it’s pretty clear he is an idealistic, altruistic person who thinks he can help reduce human misery. It also makes you wonder how much better the film would be if it took its own advice and portrayed Henry and Cohen’s other subjects as human beings, and not as case studies plugging an idea.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.