This past week, I was sitting in my composer’s workshop class—a discussion-based seminar where the composition majors get together and talk about a variety of topics. We usually start with some type of composition-related issue, but often stray into other arenas such as politics, social justice, etc. A few weeks ago, the question was brought up: Is Music a universal language, and if so, do all humans respond similarly to music at a fundamental level? Our professor then suggested that we all watch the documentary, “Alive Inside,” which is exactly what we did that next week.
Alive Inside, written and produced by Michael Rossato-Bennett and winner of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award, is the story of social worker-turned-quasi-music therapist and general do-gooder Dan Cohen. He founded the nonprofit organization Music & Memory, where nursing home patients receive something he calls, “personalized music.” He creates a playlist, based on the patients’ musical interests, and simply gives them an iPod shuffle with headphones. The results are astounding. Almost by default, the patients become animated and excited when they hear their favorite artist or song being played. Their faces light up, and a once vegetative human being comes to life again. It’s truly remarkable how simple the introduction of personalized music could be, but one of the main themes in the documentary is the flawed system of the nursing home system in America.
There are currently 1.4 million patients in nursing homes in the United States, according to the CDC. 68.2 percent of the 15,700 nursing homes in America are owned for-profit. Before there were nursing homes based on the hospital model, there were actual homes that elderly people lived in with caregivers, much more like a home environment. I really appreciated how the documentary brought up many points about the flaws of the personal care industry in America—it has become just that, a business. The care providers work together with pharmaceutical companies, encouraging a steady diet of medications and anti-psychotic drugs as opposed to alternative therapy. I think what most people don’t understand about nursing home patients is, even though they may have a debilitating disease such as Alzheimer’s, and cannot interact in the same way as everyone else can, they still have very valid feelings: fear, love, affection, sadness, joy. The personalized music project helps them to tap into these emotions when disease takes over their cognition.
For caregivers, this film gives some great ideas about how to bring personalized music into the home. I’m working on a playlist of the music my grandma used to listen to when she was younger: the classics, like Glen Miller, Benny Goodman, and Frank Sinatra. She is also a lover of classical music, and usually starts crying when she hears cello music. There must be something universal about music that moves all of us—to tears, to remember a specific moment in time when a song was played, to take us to another world somewhere, away from the corridors of a nursing home. It’s painful to watch the dead-ness in the residents in the film, and similarly in any standard nursing home in America, but, with the prospect of personalized music being made available, little by little, maybe we can see a change in how Alzheimer’s is treated, and maybe eventually, cured.