Alzheimer's blog

Film captures power of music to help those with Alzheimer's

By Angela Lunde April 17, 2014

Over the weekend, I attended the documentary film "Alive Inside" as part of the International Film Festival in Rochester.

As I watched this extraordinary film, I was reminded of Gail, a younger woman living with Alzheimer's.

Years ago, I visited Gail in her home every week. We'd engage in a variety of activities from baking cookies to reading her mail and rummaging through old photos.

We'd go to restaurants, movies, museums and parks. Any one of these activities would go well on some occasions, and not so well (Gail becoming agitated or fearful) on others.

But one thing we did always, and I mean always, resulted in laughter, singing, movement and heartfelt conversation initiated by Gail. That one thing was music.

"Alive Inside", released last year, follows social worker Dan Cohen as he spearheads a campaign to bring iPods and music to individuals in nursing homes. This inspiring film demonstrates how a simple intervention improves the lives for so many.

It also underscores how our broken model of dementia care fails miserably to touch the hearts and souls of human beings.

The film captures the raw reactions of many elderly (and some not so old) as they're each introduced to personalized music through an iPod.

When "I Get Around" by the Beach Boys plays through Marylou's headphones the expression on her face changes from confusion and helplessness to joy and euphoria — something her husband said he hadn't seen since Alzheimer's struck.

Central to the film is Henry, a 90-something-year-old living with Alzheimer's. A video clip of him went viral with millions of views. It shows him in what's likely a typical day — in his wheelchair, head down, largely unresponsive to the outside world.

Then, the headphones go on and the music of Cab Calloway flows into Henry's ears. If you've seen this clip then you know there's no denying Henry awakens, mind, body and soul.

He lifts his head, move to the rhythm of the music, hums and then sings. A short while later, he responds to questions, engages in conversation, begins expressing emotions and talks with passion about his life as memories resurface.

"Henry has reacquired his identity for a while through the power of music," says neurologist Oliver Sacks in the video.

The power of music may be understood at some level because implicit memories are relatively well preserved in people living with dementia. Implicit memory is the kind associated with routines and repetitive activities.

We tend to listen to music we like over and over and since Alzheimer's impacts the ability to form new memories, music we once loved remains accessible in the brain.

Music is far more complex than I can discern. But we know it employs everything from our emotions, to coordination, to visual memory and parts of our brain that resource rhythm, melody, lyrics and harmony.

Music, it appears, stimulates many parts of the brain simultaneously. Perhaps that's why it can calm, improve mood, increase socialization, bring back memories, and almost instantaneously bring to life the whole person.

Back to my friend Gail.

She and her husband, Mike, had a large music collection. Gail would select an album and I'd place it on the turntable. Then, magic would happen.

Her eyebrows would lift, she'd smile, sway from side to side, tap her feet, move her arms as if she were the conductor of the band, and then, when she couldn't stay seated any longer, she'd stand up and reach out her hand to me.

There in front of a large picture window Gail and I would sing and dance to her favorite music. And like those outside the window, inside, Gail too was fully alive, and we were connected in life.

To learn more, go to the film's website at www.aliveinside.us.

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Apr. 17, 2014