'Alive Inside' shows power of music in dementia patients

It is estimated that 1.6 million people live in nursing homes in the U.S. At least 40 percent of those individuals have dementia. These are some of the facts you will learn when you see "Alive Inside," a documentary about Dan Cohen, a social worker and volunteer who hopes to transform life for those aging and living with dementia, and a portrayal of those lives he has touched. What you will be surprised to learn is that those living in nursing homes having access to a simple $40 iPod are "coming alive" with the help of a volunteer and music.

Cohen set out to explore the value of using personalized music for people living in a nursing home using an iPod and his computer to create an individualized play list. With filmmaker Michael Rossato Bennett, he chronicled the experiences of nursing home residents' reactions to music that was specifically downloaded for them based on their past preferences. What he most likely didn't expect was a documentary, which won the 2014 Sundance Music Festival's Audience award, chronicling his amazing discoveries of the power of music.


Cohen placed a pair of headphones on a man named Henry Dryer. The results, which have gone viral on YouTube, are unmistakable. Henry, isolated and disengaged, came to life when he was played the music he loved on a simple iPod. The transformation that you witness is not just for the short time that he listens to his personalized playlist. Dryer's transformation has continued and as a result, has reconnected Henry "back to the world."

When dementia patients were given the headphones, they were able to move, laugh, cry and express themselves in ways in which they had not been previously able to demonstrate. Music has the ability to "wake the brain up, flip the switch, and turn the lights on" one might say.


Research has shown that listening to music stimulates the right and left hemispheres of the brain, which have very different functions. The act of listening to music can provide stress release, positive effects on thinking, lift people from depression and as witnessed in "Alive Inside," reconnect them to the world around them.

Cohen began with nursing home residents diagnosed with various physical limitations and found that the residents became more social and less depressed with music. Then he began to work with residents with dementia. What he found was that music was a "back door" to triggering familiar emotions and that while people were no longer able to talk and interact, their reconnection to familiar emotions allowed them to connect and "come alive."

Dryer sat in a wheelchair, no longer recognizing his daughter, and was speaking no more than yes or no answers when he had headphones placed on his head. His favorite Cab Calloway music had an immediate and unexpected reaction. He began to lift his head, open his eyes wide and sing to the music. The ability to talk and interact followed his reconnection. The same effect has been witnessed with others suffering from dementia.

Cohen is on a mission to change life for those in nursing homes via music. He began a nonprofit Music and Memory. What he found was that not everyone was so excited about his vision to positively influence the lives of those living in nursing homes or affected by Alzheimer's or dementia. The obstacle: $40 for an iPod. He states "can write out a prescription for a thousand dollars for antidepressants, but it's hard to get $40," for an iPod. He continues to educate the public about the benefits of music and to encourage nursing homes to adopt iPods for the use of residents. Progress has been slower than he hoped, yet he continues to share his story with hopes that the culture will shift and that music may replace — or at least assist — the current attempts to improve the functioning and mood of those living in nursing homes.

Stay tuned. I will be having a showing of "Alive Inside" later this summer.

Jill Rosner is a registered nurse, certified geriatric care manager and owner of Rosner Healthcare Navigation. She provides patient advocacy and care management services to clients with health and aging issues. Contact her at