Sundance film highlights power of music on patients with Alzheimer’s

Music & Memory founder Dan Cohen distributes donated iPods to nursing homes, bringing dementia patients a sense of calm and igniting buried memories. It’s helped lower the amount of antipsychotic drugs administered at nursing homes and brings patience peace, he said. A new film, ‘Alive Inside,’ tells their story.

A scene from ‘Alive Inside,’ which shows how patients with dementia like Alzheimer’s can benefit from being reunited with music they used to listen to. It premieres at the Sundance Film Festival.

Sometimes, you have to see it to believe it.

A new film showcases the power of music and its incredible effect on some patients with Alzheimer’s, who visibly light up when they hear songs from their youth.

They’re brought to tears hearing a tune they haven’t listened to in decades; others speak freely for the first time after years of agitation and being dulled by antipsychotic medication.

“People said, ‘Oh, how nice, you’re bringing old people music.’ And I said, ‘No, you don’t get it. It’s really life-changing,’” explained Dan Cohen, founder of Music & Memory, a Long Island nonprofit that brings donated iPods to nursing homes around the country, providing residents with their own personal music, many for the first time.

“See, we’re used to this, because we have it,” Cohen said, citing the ubiquity of portable music players. “But a lot of people have been separated from their music for ten years or even more.”

The film, “Alive Inside,” premieres this week at Sundance and follows Cohen’s journey with the nonprofit he launched in 2006, as a social worker in Mineola.

It’s been in the works for five years, he said.

A viral YouTube clip from 2012 shows Henry, then a patient at Cobble Hill Health Center, put on a pair of headphones and begin to sing and dance — the first time he’d ever expressed such emotion after 10 years at the home.

“In some sense, Henry has restored to himself,” neurologist Oliver Sacks says in the video, which has been viewed nearly 8 million times.

“He has remembered who he is and has reacquired his identity for a while.”

Cohen, who has provided iPods to 424 nursing homes in 36 states and eight countries, says the power of the music lies in its calming effects.

“Very often, people with Alzheimer’s get agitated,” he said. “They’re losing control, they’re confused, they can’t communicate.”

Nurses often turn to antipsychotic drugs to calm patients down, what Cohen calls “chemical restraint.”

But in some cases, music eliminates the need for drugs.

At Coler-Goldwater Specialty Hospital & Nursing Facility on Roosevelt Island, use of antipsychotic medications among 500 dementia patients fell from 38% in January 2011 to 13% in June 2013, after the hospital implemented the Music & Memory program.

“Music you remember from when you were young remains even if you’re low on short-term memory,” Cohen said. “So we want to take advantage of that.”

Filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett wrote and directed “Alive Inside,” pulling from three years of material he’d collected working alongside Cohen.

Its first showing is Saturday in Park City, Utah.

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 Story Source: NEW YORK DAILY TIMES / Rheana Murray

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