Four years ago, documentary maker Michael Rossato-Bennett brought his camera to a nursing home intent on shooting a short for New York social worker Dan Cohen. But what started out as a one-day gig turned into a three-year crusade that now bears fruit with the late-summer release of feature length documentary Alive Inside.
Rossato-Bennett decided to go big with the project after he looked through his viewfinder and watched an iPod transform a nearly comatose old man named Henry into a jubilant soul singer. "They rolled this guy into the room. He was in his nineties and his head was fallen into his chest. Then they put headphones on him and I watched life comes into his eye. Like a spring, Henry sat up and started to sing and his voice was the voice of an angel. I got goose bumps across my whole body and had tears in my eyes."
Rossato-Bennett posted the six-minute "Henry" clip on a back page of Cohen's website. It languished there for six months until a Reddit user discovered the video and posted a link to "Old Man In Nursing Home Reacts To Hearing Music From His Era" with the comment "This is us in 70 years."
The video went viral and now stands at nearly 10 million views.
Rossato-Bennett says "Suddenly, all the nursing homes in the country watched the video and started to say, 'Okay, there's something going on here.'" 450 nursing homes nationwide now use iPods with playlists to combat memory loss among residents.
Inside Alive includes appearances by neurologist Oliver Sacks, co-founder of Institute For Music and Neurological Function, who explains the primordial hard-wiring that connects music with memory cells.
But Cohen's program goes a step further than traditional musical therapies by tailoring playlists filled with each patient's favorite old songs. "You have to be specific and that's the biggest challenge," Cohen explains in a separate interview. "God Bless America has been done a million different ways, but for many people in their 80's, it has to be the version sung by Kate Smith and nobody else. You might have to spend a couple of hours with a resident to figure out the songs, but once you have that playlist, it's an instant hit."
"We want this film to change the conversation about how to deal with the most over-medicated population in the world." adds Rossato-Bennett. "Instead of using anti-psychotic drugs on people suffering from Alzheimer's or depression or dementia, personalized music has no side effects and actually works better than any drug."
Winner of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award, Alive Inside prompted standing ovations in Connecticut and New York theaters earlier this month. Rossato-Bennett says, "Our film addresses some subjects people don't like to talk about, yet it's a joyous experience because we show that people suffering from memory loss still have this life inside that runs incredibly deep."
Cohen set up the nonprofit Music & Memory website to expand on the film's message. He says, "We encourage people to donate their old iPods and they can download PDFs explaining how to set up playlists for their loved ones along with other actions they can take."
Rossato-Bennett hopes Alive Inside encourages more of the country's 16,000 nursing homes to embrace headphones and personalized music as an alternative to pharmaceutical treatments. "Dementia is one of our greatest communal fears and something we've never been able to address with drugs," he says. 'We have this profound tool, the iPod, right there in our hands, that can create connections."