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The Healing Power Of Music For The Fractured Mind

One day my mom was visiting a nurse about my dad. She was being told about the quality of life, and how to make my dad feel comfortable. My mom wasn’t having it, so she told my dad that no matter what we’ll never give up on him. Afterwards, my mom said that it almost looked like he was crying. I say this to say that even though my dad looked dead on the outside, he was very much alive on the inside. This brings me to a documentary movie directed by Michael Rossato-Bennet, called Alive Inside.

The documentary follows the journey of a man named Dan Cohen, as he reawakens the minds of patients with dementia through the healing power of music. Dan volunteered at a nursing home when he made this life-changing discovery. He asked Dan to film him for one day because he wanted people to see what he was seeing when patients came alive through music. “Music connects people with who they had been, who they are, and their lives…” Dan explained. “…because what happens when you get old is all the things you knew, and your identity are all just being peeled away.”

The first person worth mentioning is the one that went viral on the internet. His name is Henry, he has vascular dementia and needs 24/7 assistance in his daily activities of living. He was in a nursing home for ten years, and he has a profound relationship with music. “He was always fun loving, singing, every occasion he could come out with a song.” Henry’s daughter Cheryl Velez states. “I remember as a child he used to walk us down the street, me and my brother, and he would stop and do Singing in the Rain. He would have us jumping and swinging around poles. He was good, he was always into music.”

When Henry was given his music, he became a different person. “When I first met him, he was very isolated, and he used to always sit on a unit with his head like this.” Recreation Therapist Yvonne Russel explained. “He didn’t really talk to many people, and then when I introduced the music to him this is his reaction ever since.” Henry became alive again, in a place that made him feel dead inside. “We connected with him. We connected with Henry’s self. You know, when you’re in a nursing home or when you have Alzheimer’s Disease, you’re struggling with your own thoughts…” Dan explained. “…suddenly, everything falls into place and you’re right there with the music, you understand it, it’s pleasurable. You’re not thinking about anything else; you’re not struggling.”

The second person worth mentioning is a woman named Denise who is bipolar schizophrenic and at the time she was living in a nursing home for two years. “Denise doesn’t hold back any emotion.” Recreation Director Michelle Van Nostrand states in the movie. “Her joy is off the charts. Unfortunately, so is her sorrow and her anger. So, she’s very raw, she’s very real.” Once Denise started listening to her favorite music, she felt a spring in her step that got her moving on her feet.

“I couldn’t believe the music let Denise push away her walker” Michael explained. “She’d been using that walker every day for two years.” It’s amazing to know that it doesn’t take medicine to bring out these remarkable reactions. As stated by Neurologist Author Dr. Oliver Sades M.D., “Music has more ability to activate more parts of the brain than any other stimulus.” One more person worth mentioning is a man named Steve who has multiple sclerosis, and like Henry, he also has a profound relationship with music.

“Music had always been a big part of my life. When I was younger, I played the trumpet, I played the organ, I played the piano.” Steve states in the movie. “When I went off to college in the early 70s, I had the requisite giant album collection which carried through to my marriage. When I ended up here, I lost all my music. My world became this facility.” When Steve got his music back, everything he thought was lost forever came back to him. “After eight years of being here, I finally had the opportunity to get my music” Steve explained. “And all of a sudden, vistas which I thought were closed to me opened up.”

Through this experience, Steve learned that the music he had his entire life never left him, not even in sickness. “Music is inseparable from emotion. So, it’s not just a physiological stimulus.” Dr. Oliver explained in the movie. “If it works at all, it will call the whole person in many different parts of the brain and the memories and emotions which go with it.” This was a moving experience that Michael couldn’t allow to last for one day, so he decided to follow Dan around on his journey for three more years.

This documentary was a moving experience for me as well. It made me think about my dad a lot, it made me think about the thoughts and feelings that could be running through his body, and if he wasn’t nonverbal, I wondered what he would say about his living conditions. This documentary teaches people that people with dementia shouldn’t be treated like corpses, and nursing homes shouldn’t be treating people with dementia as if their diagnosis is the only thing that defines them. These people are human beings who were full of life and joy before they became sick. That shouldn’t change just because they’re labeled with a condition they didn’t ask for or choose to have. We should be helping dementia patients by reminding them of the things that make them who they are, and what makes them human. If having them listen to their favorite songs helps them do that, then I say that it is something worth considering.

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