The Middle Distance, 8.8.14: The Soundtrack of Their Lives

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Credit Sean Cayton

If aging is letting go of adulthood and entering a whole new phase of life, a visit from an adult child can bring that reality into focus. Last week my daughter and her husband visited, and I experienced another in a long series of identity tweaks out here in the middle distance. I hadn’t yet let go of the mothering role I served with my kids for nearly 40 years, organizing their days and meals together, deciding what we would eat and when. As I watched my daughter, her brother and their significant others arrange their days and their meals, I felt part of myself quietly floating away.

It wasn’t so much an experience of loss as release, but it was disorienting. And it made me wonder what’s on the other side of shedding all those hard-earned identities of adulthood.

I was thinking about this when I heard that the 2014 Sundance Audience Award winning documentary, Alive Inside, will be screened in Colorado Springs next Friday. The film got its jump-start when director Michael Rossoto-Bennett shot footage of a 94-year old nursing home resident named Henry and posted it on the internet. Henry had basically been sitting in a wheelchair, head down, dozing and rarely moving for nearly ten years when a man named Dan Cohen placed a set of headphones on his ears and pushed the button on an iPod, feeding Henry the music of his youth, his favorite, Cab Callaway. In real time, the video shows Henry waking up, singing along, tapping time, and recalling details of his childhood and young adulthood, ecstatic over the restoration of those memories.

Rossoto-Bennett’s video went viral within a week with 7 million views. Donations from strangers led to grants and a Kickstarter campaign that funded production of Alive Inside, a film documenting Cohen’s work in nursing homes around the U.S. and raising some fundamental questions about how our society treats those elders who’ve lost their homes, often their loved ones, and their independence, not to mention their vital connections to the past through memory.

Cohen is a social worker with a tech background who trains health care professionals to load iPods with personalized musical playlists for their clients. Throughout the film, we see people with various degrees of dementia and other degenerative conditions blossom when they hear the soundtrack of their lives through gently placed headphones, their demeanor immediately altered from passive to engaged.

Famed neurologist Oliver Sacks appears in the film, affirming music’s way as a “back door into the mind,” activating “more parts of the brain than any other stimulus.” In essence, says Sacks, these elders like Henry momentarily reacquire, through music, the identities they’ve lost to their medical conditions.

Through the film, Cohen’s work has gained wide exposure, has seen an influx of donations and is spreading to nursing homes across the country. The state of Wisconsin is currently launching the first federally funded program to introduce patients to personalized music in hopes of reducing the use of psychotropic drugs, another troubling aspect of institutionalized eldercare addressed in the film.

But what about the larger issue the film raises: Are we, as a culture, really interested in changing how attitudes about aging and the needs of those elders who are disabled?

Dr. William Thomas, one of the medical experts in the film, indicates that Cohen’s simple and inexpensive approach is not likely to be embraced by the medical-industrial-pharmaceutical complex that makes decisions about which treatments will be paid for and which will not. “I can write a prescription for a $1,000 a month antidepressant, no problem,” he says. “But if I ask for a $40 music system, that doesn’t count as a medical intervention.”

Thomas says the American way of eldercare has done nothing, medically speaking, to touch the hearts and souls of patients or honor their lives, the unique gift of Cohen’s musical treatment.

A brief internet search unveils Dr. Thomas’s true vision as an eldercare advocate, to rally the post-war generation in America—that’s us, baby boomers—to stop chasing youth and to uphold the traditional historic role of elder, or face the consequences of a world that fails to transmit wisdom and memory across generations.

We will not all suffer dementia, but we will certainly all grow old, shedding the skins we’ve accumulated while still searching for the person we’re meant to become in our time on earth. What if it became a cultural imperative to care deeply about elders? Maybe it would open a window to the soul that can’t really be found in our technological substitutes for knowledge and wisdom. Maybe it would help us all feel a little more alive inside.

Windrider Forum presents a screening of Alive Inside and a follow-up Q&A with director Michael Rossoto-Bennett, Friday, August 15, 7 p.m. at Armstrong Theater on the Colorado College campus. Tickets at:

For more about Alive Inside, click HERE

For more about Music & Memory, click HERE.

Dr. Thomas’s article, “Eldertopia,” can be found HERE.

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.