Aging is a problem. Not necessarily the fact of getting old, which does represent its challenges, but more the fact that number of seniors in the general population is going up, while the number of people under the age of 65 is going down. Population by age used to look like a pyramid, with the large base at the bottom made up of young people. But that pyramid now looks more like a column, evenly spread out all the way through. In a short time, about 30-35 years, that pyramid will be inverted, bringing with it a whole host of issues. It would seem then that now is a good time to start thinking about elder care in new ways, and one researcher in Alive Inside thinks he’s tapped into something special to help combat not just old age ailments like dementia and Alzheimer’s, but to enhance quality of life for seniors everywhere.
Alive Inside, which premiered at Sundance earlier this year, has everything you need to be a crowd-pleasing documentary smash: loveable old people, a timely message, and a hero trying to buck the system with his supposedly unusual methods. The film began when nursing home volunteer Dan Cohen asked director Michael Rossato-Bennett to follow him around for the day as he gave iPods to nursing home residents, some of whom were incommunicative and/or had been ravaged by their degenerative illness, and then watched the effects as those residents revisited their favourite music from their youth. The results were, to say the least, surprising.
We’re introduced to a man named Henry, who’s 94 years old and has spent the previous decade as a resident of the Cobble Hill nursing home. Henry is one of five million Americans with dementia, a number that’s sure to increase with time and an aging population. Most days, Henry is unresponsive, shutdown to those that try to engage him, even to his own children. But when Dan puts on a playlist of standards from the 1940s, Henry suddenly comes to life, tapping his fingers and bobbing his head, almost as if he were some toy that needed winding up, or a battery changed.
But what explains the sudden change? Science! Rossato-Bennett consults experts in aging and medical professionals who call music a “backdoor to the mind.” When music enters your brain it stimulates several different parts at once, many of which are the last to be affected by Alzheimer’s as the disease progresses. Playing music, specifically music from one’s youth, re-energizes those connections eroded by age and disease, in effect, making their minds more active again, both staving off the effects of the disease and allowing renewed access to memories. One 90-year-old woman tells Dan she can’t remember anything, until he plays a little Louis Armstrong for her, at which point she starts remembering that her mother told her and her sisters not to listen to that bad influence.
Rossato-Bennett’s one day with Cohen eventually turned into three years, as they attempted to bring music to nursing homes and long-term care facilities everywhere. Since every movie, even documentaries, need some kind of conflict, that’s easier said than done. Dan, ever the optimist, thought that they’d “take the idea and run with it,” but he has to fight uphill against entrenched dogma of both the medical profession and the way that nursing homes have been administered for nearly a century. As one doctor put it, if you want to write a prescription for a drug that costs $1,000 for a month’s supply, no problem. If you want to write a prescription for a $40 iPod Nano and an iTunes subscription, the red tape comes out in force.
That’s not to say that Alive Inside is a “let’s fight an unjust and outdated system,” kind of film, although it is interested in posing the question about why something so simple gets so many roadblocks thrown in front of it, or why giving seniors several different pills daily is better than a little Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, or, heaven forbid, Louis Armstrong. Rossato-Bennett also tackles the nature of modern elder care, with experts calling the inception of nursing homes in America a “shotgun marriage between the poorhouse and the hospital.” In those terms, the starkness of the nursing home concept really comes into play, and you’ll find yourself instinctively reaching for your own iPod in case they try and take you away without it.
Before disappearing too much into negativity, let’s just make it clear that Alive Inside is not a downer of a film that lures you in with the promise of charming old people. It simply uses those charming old people to make a powerful point that elder care has issues. Not only is the number of doctors who specialize in gerontology (the study of the social, psychological and biological aspects of aging), going down, and not only are the institutions themselves broken in their approach to taking care a growing number of Americans, but the universal point of view of aging in that we’re taught that old people are “broken down versions of their former selves” is where things need to change first.
Mostly though, yes, this film is about charming old people. The emotional spectrum of Alive Inside runs the course from happy to sad, and from exhilarated to devastated. It’s amazing to think that something so simple can have such a tremendous impact, but the proof is right there on screen. You meet Norman and Nell, who have been using music therapy to allow Nell to keep living at home despite the dementia for 10 years now without ever having to get a prescription filled. You meet Denise, who’s both bi-polar and schizophrenic, which sends her emotions “off the charts,” at times. But with music therapy that rampant emotionalism is reined in, and in her first experience with the iPod she even leaves her walker behind and starts to dance.
Thinking about it, Alive Inside is a terribly bittersweet film. As the viewer, you are at once reminded at all that the elderly can offer, but are also reminded that a great many of them have been relegated to a slow death in the cold confines of an institution that’s hopelessly dead bolted to an ineffective form of management. Rossato-Bennett uses a soft touch to gently nudge us and say, hey, let’s look at this in a new way. He asks us to realize that getting old isn’t scary, it’s going to happen to all of us. The question is, how do we want to be treated when we get to that point? Taking pills every hour on the hour, or happily listening to our iPods, remembering old times, and keeping our minds active.
Watch Alive Inside, and you’ll certainly find your answer.