Sunday, March 23, 2014

Movie Review: Alive Inside

Today at the Cleveland International Film Festival, I saw Alive Inside, a documentary about the Music and Memory project. The movie follows three years of Dan Cohen working tirelessly to bring iPods to dementia patients living in nursing homes.

Social worker Dan Cohen noticed that if he gave a person with dementia access to music, in specific music that they like from their past, they come alive. People who only sat slumped over in their chair and never talked, sang with the music, danced in their chair and were even able to recount memories from their past that the music reminded them of.

Alive Inside Kickstarter Campaign
Cohen wanted to get an iPod to ever person with dementia living in a nursing home and thought that with the amazing transformations of these people and how the music drastically improved their life, that this would be an easy task. However, he had the same problem as we have found in the work we do, non-pharmacological interventions are not supported by the medical community.

It was not until a clip from the movie was shared on Redit which went viral did Cohen get the national exposure he needed and he finally received a grant to bring personalized music to nursing home residents. His program has been expanding and at the end of the movie, Cohen has a few stories of people who live at home with dementia and benefit from the iPod program.

I have been following Cohen's amazing work because our foundation, the Carolyn L. Farrell Foundation for Brain Health, would like to get iPods with personalized playlists to all of our clients living at home with dementia and mental illness. We hope one day to receive the Music and Memory training when it is able to be provided to organizations who work with people in their homes.

Watching in the movie how residents with dementia responded to the music was amazing. You really can not get an understanding of how important the personalized music is unless you see it. Below is a clip from the movie, a clip which I have been showing at most events where I speak to people about dementia and how the arts are used in treatment and work better even than medication. In fact, in Alive Inside, a doctor who works with Aricept (most commonly used drug for Alzheimer's Disease) said that he has seen no medication work as well as the music does in helping people with dementia.

I also feel that this movie is one of the most compassionate understandings of good dementia care that I have ever seen. Alive Inside challenges the current ways in which we currently care for our elderly. We care for them with a hospital model, overly medicated, with all of their choice, dignity, joy, personality, and soul taken away from them. The movie shows how we have access to simple things, such as music, which can dramatically improve quality of life, and yet the medical model makes it nearly impossible for those of us using the arts to care for people to even get our programs and resources to them.

This movie explains why I do the work that I do both with people with dementia and mental illness. In the movie is the extremely powerful story of Denise who has bipolar schizophrenia and how the music not only calms her but brings meaning and purpose to her life. I often help people with mental illness create their own playlists to manage their illness. I use music in my treatment program for my own bipolar disorder.

Alive Inside also talks about the tipping point we are reaching in America around dementia. The amount of people with dementia is rapidly growing and we do not have the resources in America to pay for care, especially not care in an institution. Programs like Music and Memory, and the art programs we provide, can help people live well with dementia in their home and greatly decrease the cost of dementia care for our nation. It is imperative that we learn how to properly care for people with dementia if we are to ever have a chance of taking care of our seniors ethically.

When I see a person with dementia, who is agitated and non-responsive become talkative, happy, and engaged when we work on an art activity together, I know we need to get these resources to every person with dementia. When I help a person in the middle of mania calm themselves through a carefully chosen playlist of songs, I know we have to find a way to make sure everyone has access to the healing power of music. We have so many ways to help people living with dementia and other illnesses of the brain yet it is so hard to get these resources to those in need.

To see someone get in touch with their inner selves, find their soul, and be called back to who they are from the depths of their illness is one of the most amazing experiences.

I encourage everyone to watch this movie if it is showing in your area. Learn how music can drastically improve dementia care. Challenge the assumptions that people with dementia are lost and do not deserve dignity and respect. When we start to understand how important these arts based forms of care are, then we can work together to make sure ever person living with dementia has access to them.


Rev. Katie


  1. Katie, did you know that Thandeka is using a clip from this movie as part of her theological workshops with ministers? Powerful stuff.

    1. That's great! I brought the clip to her when she was doing her workshop at our church. I guess since she is using it now means she liked it!