Film review: Alive Inside (2014)

Mar 5, 2018

Film review: Alive Inside (2014)

Film review: Alive Inside (2014)

„Who are we without our memories?”

The documentary follows Dan Cohen, the founder of ’Music and Memory’, on his mission to reform the way society approaches dementia care. He is bringing music into nursing homes, demonstrating the possibilities that one’s favourite music can offer in combating memory loss. The film is filled with many of the truly beautiful encounters Dan has when bringing people their beloved tunes; awakening their souls and re-connecting them with their own identity, their personhood.

The magic of music

Our relationship with music is primal. We connect with it on a deeper level and this connection is one of the last things ‘to go’ when it comes to dementia; hence its visibly miraculous effects even in severe cases of the disease. As Oliver Sacks puts it, music touches springs of memory and emotion that otherwise may be completely inaccessible to those with living with some form of dementia. It opens the ’backdoor’ to the mind using and accessing many parts of the brain otherwise involved in different activities.

„Music is inseparable from emotion”

The film highlights the wonderful effect our favourite music has on all of us and its special meaning in someone’s life with a disease like Alzheimer’s – it allows them to reach some of their memories and through that connect to themselves again. Throughout the film, we see residents being gifted their own personalized music on easy-to-operate i-pods, and the magic starts almost as soon as they hear the first line of the first song. As if they have been transformed by some miracle, they come alive, their face lights up and excitement fills the room as they are overcome with emotion.

„It can’t get away from me if I’m in this place”

Music that has meaning to someone has a powerful effect. It awakens the soul that has been sleeping inside. This simple but powerful idea of a personalized musical playlist thoughtfully connects the residents of these nursing homes to their identity. It is a spectacular demonstration that the heart and soul is still there, ’locked away’, waiting to be spoken to and brought back to life, often after years of isolation lack of stimulus.

A holistic approach and the care system

Along with its powerful message regarding the effects of music on people with dementia, the film also highlights the important flaws in the care system. It points out that residents in these homes are treated and managed mainly with medication, and close to nothing is done to reach out to their souls, to take care of their mental and emotional health as well. Society tends to treat the elderly as if they were broken down versions of their original, well-functioning selves. Thus, nursing homes are built based on a hospital model, aiming to minimize difficult to manage behaviour and distress stemming from confusion with medication. The elderly living there receive barely any outside stimulation and often spend their days in a near vegetative state – drawn completely inward. This could be different, says Dan Cohen and the growing number of supporters of his idea. Music and other alternative forms of engaging those with dementia – from pet therapy to the involvement of nurseries in resident’s lives – are part of the various creative and effective initiatives that haven’t been established on a large scale – yet. Most care homes are reluctant to adopt the program and funding is scarce, despite the fact that it makes the residents happier, more sociable, and their moods easier to manage for staff. However, it is still perceived as complementary care, and not as part of the essential care package that residents must receive.

The light at the end of the tunnel

Despite all the hardships Dan and others like him have to face when actualizing their dream, the film demonstrates perfectly how one drop in the ocean can bring about a ripple effect. Dan Cohen’s mission became a hit when an excerpt of the documentary went viral – Henry, who’s been living with dementia for over a decade, barely moving or communicating, practically transfigures in front of us from one minute to the next, dancing and singing to the music, then enthusiastically explaining what the music he’s listening to means to him. After many million views on the video of Henry invigorated by his favourite music, countless testimonies and accounts of people trying the same with their own loved one with dementia and succeeding flooded the internet. This rippled further; funding started flowing in and the number of care homes taking part grew exponentially. The mission is far from complete as the idea is still not widely adopted. It is however the beginning of a changing perspective and the realization that a holistic approach to caring for people living with dementia is essential to their mental health, overall well-being and quality of life.

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