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Music and Alzheimer's

If you’ve ever felt , or witnessed, the unimaginable despair and sadness that accompanies seeing a loved one with Alzheimer’s, there could be good news for you. A new feature documentary, “Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory,” demonstrates the power of music to awaken and revive those suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia–and to bring them closer to being themselves once more..

A YouTube clip from the movie provides a tender scene of Henry, a nursing home patient with dementia, being brought “back to life” through the music from his past (Click here to see it.) In a nursing home for 10 years, hunched over and uncommunicative except for “yes” or “no” answers, he suddenly starts humming and moving when he is given a headset and iPod with music of his era. Afterwards, he is able to talk about the experience in a way that would have been impossible before. “What do you like about the music, Henry?” the interviewer asks. “It gives me the feeling of love and romance,” says Henry.

The film spotlights social worker Dan Cohen’s mission to bring iPods and the personal music experience to 16,000 nursing homes across the country so that patients can experience the emotional connections triggered through listening to their favorite music.

The effect lasts beyond when the music is turned off. Research shows that music not only retrieves old memories, it can help develop new memory. It’s not a cure for Alzheimer’s or dementia, but it does provide moments of lucidity and comfort for both the patient and family members. It also lets us know that even though someone may look like an empty shell from the outside, there is something going on inside.

Renowned neurologist and author Dr. Oliver Sacks adds his perspective to the film on how music functions inside our brains: “Music imprints itself on the brain deeper than any other human experience.” Music does indeed have “charms to soothe a savage breast/To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak,” as William Congreve wrote in 1697.

My family has personal experience with this phenomenon. When my sister brought my father home from adult daycare every day, she used music to soothe his anxiety during the transition. Having gotten used to his peers and caregivers at the daycare home, he couldn’t understand why he was leaving. He didn’t remember having a wife. So my sister would start singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” or the Army Air Force anthem from dad’s WWII service, and he would relax and join in.

As they pulled into the driveway of the home he shared with my mother, he would say “I don’t live here; take me home.” Making some excuse of visiting someone, sis would get him into the house and onto the couch, sometimes with his coat and gloves still on, and put in a CD of romantic ballads from the years he had dated mom so he wouldn’t be anxious or defiant. Music took away the fear.