Thursday, May 29, 2014

Outside for Alive Inside

Only in Telluride would some 200 people sit outside at night in 46-degree weather to watch a documentary on Alzheimer’s.
I’ve seen memorable performances in Town Park—Peter, Paul & Mary, Bob Dylan, Shakespeare in the Park—but Monday evening’s screening of Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory takes the cake.
This 2014 film won audience choice for Best Documentary at this year’s Sundance Festival because it focuses on how music—a personalized iPod—can bring joy and vitality to persons who seem locked away from their own past by loss of memory. (Mountainfilm 2014 gave its audience choice award to DamNation.)
Director Michael Rossato-Bennett profiles seven patients in the film, as well as providing statistics and explaining neurologically why Alzheimer’s patients can be reached through music.  Emotion and motion are controlled by parts of the brain that are the last to be harmed; music evokes emotion and often includes dance, so it’s stored in these areas and provides access to pathways long blocked.
I was deeply moved to witness Alive Inside in Telluride, not far from Lone Tree Cemetery, surrounded by the ghosts of old timers, some of whom suffered from dementia in their last years.  My grandfather, his sister Mary, and several others in the family lived most of their lives in Telluride but finally succumbed to various forms of dementia.
My mother, Evelyn Gustafson Eggebroten, was born in Telluride in March of 1919.  Because of the flu epidemic, her mother was not allowed to go to the town hospital to give birth.  As she grew up, she became interested in nursing and eventually taught public health nursing at the University of Maryland.
Evelyn died in 2008 after a ten-year ordeal with Alzheimer’s disease.  In the faces and voices of those interviewed in the film, and in looking up at the stars overhead, I felt her presence.
In her last years on the Memory Care floor of an assisted living residence, I played music of the 1940s and earlier for her—everything from Big Band favorites, ballads and hymns to Lawrence Welk shows.
In doing so, I was only following her training.  She had given her public health nursing students experience with not only door-to-door visits but also trips to laundromats and nursing homes. 
In 1975 she placed her students in Keswick Nursing Home in Baltimore, Maryland, and challenged them to experiment with music as a way of reaching withdrawn patients.  They titled their project “Hello in There.”
In her memoir, my mother describes the effect of music on a German woman who was very quiet and seemed depressed: “I told the students to play tape-recordings of songs this patient had enjoyed in earlier days.  Our son, Bill, had studied German and had a phonograph record of German folk songs.  On a hunch, I made a cassette tape recording of it and let her hear it.  Our depressed patient was thrilled, as shown by her sudden talking and humming with the music of her native songs….”
All of us sitting in the cold darkness in Town Park witnessed multiple awakenings of this sort through Alive Inside.  We came away hopeful about ways to find quality of life for the five million persons in the US who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease.
In fact, as in many of the Mountainfilm presentations, we were given tools to make a difference ourselves, starting with a visit to the Music & Memory website:
Another approach is to support the research of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function,
Awake Inside reports on the overuse of medications to sedate dementia patients into compliant behavior instead of seeing their anger or depression as a natural result of their situation.  I witnessed this problem with my mother when she was hospitalized after disruptive behavior; for days she was so heavily sedated she could not hold her head up.
Dan Cohen, the social worker at the heart of the film, believes that a small investment in iPods and music can heal people in ways that medications can’t. 
One of the patients in the film makes a profound statement about the need for music and joy while living in a nursing home: “Even if you’re dying, you still have to live.”
Alive Inside (73 min.) is available through various online resources such as    The following clip from the film went viral on YouTube:
Evelyn’s memoir, Adventures of a Telluride Native, is available at the Telluride Historical Museum and at Between the Covers Bookstore.
For additional information and statistics, see the website of the Alzheimer’s Association: