May 17, 2012, 2:00 PM
Revived by Music
By PAULA SPAN
Maybe you’re among the millions who’ve watched and forwarded this video of an unresponsive 94-year-old with dementia, slumped in his wheelchair at a nursing home in Brooklyn. But when a staff member puts earphones in place and clicks on an iPod loaded with favorite hymns, he awakens, moving to the music, humming along.
He tells an unseen interviewer how much he loved Cab Calloway and mimics his scat singing; he croons a credible “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” He becomes a different person, or perhaps, for a while, the person he always was.
The clip comes from an hourlong documentary called “Alive Inside,” and its global popularity has stunned both the director, the Manhattan filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett, and Dan Cohen, a Long Island social worker.
Two years ago, Mr. Cohen hired Mr. Rossato-Bennett to create a short film about his mission, which is nothing less than bringing personalized music to every nursing home in the nation. As we’ve noted here before, many elderly people remember and respond to music when all other means of communication have shut down.
“It wasn’t something easy to explain with words,” Mr. Rossato-Bennett told me. To persuade nursing administrators to cooperate, “they have to see it.”
What Mr. Rossato-Bennett saw, the first day he followed Mr. Cohen around, repeatedly brought him to tears and convinced him that he needed to make a full documentary depicting the transformations that music can bring.
He estimates he’s spent more than $150,000 to date, some of it from grants, some from his own pocket, some still owed. Mr. Rossato-Bennett said theaters in New York and Los Angeles have already asked to show the film once it is finished. For his part, Mr. Cohen has run training sessions about the benefits of personalized music through his nonprofit organization, Music and Memory, in 50 nursing homes in 15 states, including chains that could help spread the idea nationally.
But Mr. Rossato-Bennett has bigger plans. “I think within a year or two, we’re going to do this,” he said, sounding excited. “Dan and I are going to get a million iPods, and we’re going to change this corner of the world.”
When I saw a rough cut of the film at the Rubin Museum in New York recently, I thought it tried to cover a lot of ground; it featured younger residents with multiple sclerosis or psychiatric diagnoses, as well as older people with dementia. It made claims it can’t substantiate yet. Music therapy has been shown to have potent effects — the neurologist Oliver Sacks, author of “Musicophilia,” makes a cameo appearance to testify to this — but to what extent do the effects of a personalized playlist persist? Do such residents really become more cooperative, as Mr. Cohen has observed?
Administrators and physicians will want to see evidence before they buy in, Mr. Cohen acknowledged, though their caution annoys him. Thousands of nursing homes promptly adopted Nintendo’s Wii game console, he pointed out. “Nobody said, ‘You have to do the research first to see if it improves hand-eye coordination.’” Still, some small studies of music’s benefits in the elderly are under way.
Meanwhile, though, why couldn’t family members and volunteers try making CDs or filling iPods for nursing home residents just because they might enjoy it? This “intervention” is about as low-cost and nonintrusive as one can find. (The Music and Memory site offers some guidelines.)
“Everyone else in society has access to music, but many of these people have become separated from it,” Mr. Rossato-Bennett said.
He might be heartened to learn the effect that his clip had on one family. Every day, Kathryn Leftwich, who’s 87, visits her husband, Jack, in a nursing home in Sedalia, Mo. Mr. Leftwich, 88, has a form of dementia, possibly linked to brain damage from a long-ago auto crash.
“Over the past few years, he’s kind of shut down,” said his son James, who saw the clip online and sent it to his mother.
Intrigued, she took along a portable CD player and some discs — Harry James, Bing Crosby, the Andrews Sisters, sounds of the 1940s — on her next visit.
“I was amazed how much it turned my husband on,” she told me. “He was more alert. He kept his eyes open more. I looked down and his right foot was tapping.” Over several days, nurses told her that Mr. Leftwich tried to help dress himself in the morning and to grasp a spoon and to help feed himself.
“He wants to talk to me more,” Mrs. Leftwich reported. Last week, she hugged him goodbye and told him she’d see him the next morning. “Not until then?” he asked.
It sounds sort of magical, I said. “I know!” Mrs. Leftwich said. “I hesitate to say the music has done it, but I’m not the only one that’s noticed a change. And I don’t know why else that would be.”
Paula Span is the author of “When the Time Comes: Families With Aging Parents Share Their Struggles and Solutions.”