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“Alive Inside” Shows Power of Music in Treating Dementia

Michael Rossato-Bennet (left) and Henry Dreher, one of the elderly people to be featured in "Alive Inside." Screenshot from "Alive Inside" Kickstarter website.

A snippet of the upcoming film “Alive Inside” was posted online for months before someone put it on the Reddit social news website and the clip went viral.

About seven million people have now watched the touching and emotional clip, which shows elderly people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia become animated and engage others after they listen to music from their youth played on iPods.

“I was completely, utterly surprised by the reaction,” said Michael Rossato-Bennett, director and producer of the film. “But honestly, I think in today’s world everyone is cynical and I think that is one of the things that made people open up to it.”

“Alive Inside” follows a program created by New York social worker Dan Cohen. Rossato-Bennett, 53, met Cohen through a granting institution they were both affiliated with.

A scene from "Alive Inside."

On a hunch Cohen brought iPods to a nursing home to play for residents with memory loss. To the surprise of Cohen and staff the elderly residents, many of whom were withdrawn and unresponsive, seemed to “awaken” when they listened to music from their past.

The film follows Cohen and neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks as they investigate the way music functions in people’s brains and lives.

“Studies have shown the music you listened to between the ages of 14 and 20 is the music that will be with you the rest of your life because that is the time of your life when you are forming your brains and who you are,” Rossato-Bennett said. “Music actually awakens them to the time of their lives when literally they were most alive.”

Scene from "Alive Inside."

Rossato-Bennett showed a rough cut of the “Alive Inside” at the Rubin Theater in New York City on April 18. The filmmaker and his team are now trying to raise money to do an edited version of the film. One financial hurdle is getting copyright approval for songs heard on the film.

Despite the hurdles in completing the film Rossato-Bennett said following the work of Cohen and Sacks was one of the most fulfilling things he has done during his 30-year filmmaking and photography career.

“Usually when you make a film you wait for a moment to make you cry and it might take three months,” he said. “On the first day of filming I cried like five times. There is something in seeing another person awaken. That does something to all of us.”

To learn more about the Kickstarter fundraising campaign to complete “Alive Inside” click here. And to find out more about how social workers help the elderly and the families overcome life’s hurdles visit the National Association of Social Workers’ “Help Starts Here” Seniors and Aging website by clicking here.

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  1. WOW- we are looking forward to seeing the documentary! The Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation has a number of resources about Alzheimer’s including activities that can help “work” out your brain- music is on the list.


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