AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. For families of people with dementia, this scene may sound sadly familiar.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ALIVE INSIDE: A STORY OF MUSIC AND MEMORY")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Hi, Papa.

HENRY: Huh?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: How are you doing?

HENRY: I'm all right. I'm fine, great.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Who am I?

HENRY: Huh?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Who am I? I'm your daughter.

HENRY: Daughter?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Uh-huh.

BLOCK: We're hearing an Alzheimer's patient named Henry, who's at a nursing home in Brooklyn. When we first see him, he is slumped over, unresponsive. Well, video of Henry has gone viral - scenes from a documentary that's in the works called "Alive Inside." It shows Henry's remarkable transformation as he listens to music on headphones. The film follows social worker Dan Cohen as he creates personalized iPod playlists for people in nursing homes to reconnect them with the music they love. As Cohen told me, the response from people like Henry is dramatic.

DAN COHEN: When he gets to listen to his own music, he comes alive, and he is able to actually answer questions and speak about his youth, and this is sort of the magic of music that's familiar. Even though Alzheimer's and various forms of dementia will ravage many parts of the brain, long-term memory of music when one was young remains very often. And so when - if you tap that, you really get that kind of awakening response. And it's pretty exciting to see.

BLOCK: It must be. And Henry in the scene gets really quite specific when he's asked about music in his life. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ALIVE INSIDE: A STORY OF MUSIC AND MEMORY")

COHEN: Do you like music?

HENRY: Yeah. I'm crazy about music. You play beautiful music, beautiful sound, beautiful.

COHEN: Did you play music when you were - were you - did you like music when you were young?

HENRY: Yes, yes. I've been to big dances and things.

COHEN: What was your favorite music when you were young?

HENRY: Well, I guess, Cab Calloway was my number one band guy I liked. (Unintelligible).

BLOCK: That's such a great moment when he starts singing like Cab Calloway. Did you find that with other patients? That they would maybe not be able to know basic facts about themselves, but the music somehow really tapped into something very deep that they could remember, they could hold on to.

COHEN: Well, this, you know, we see this over and over, and that's what's so exciting is this isn't just a one-off, unique event.

BLOCK: And it turns out Henry has quite a voice himself.

COHEN: Yes, he does.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ALIVE INSIDE: A STORY OF MUSIC AND MEMORY")

HENRY: (Singing) I'll be home there for Christmas. You can count - depend on me.

BLOCK: I think the responses that you're describing, Dan, are something that music therapists have talked about for years, not just with dementia but also with, say, traumatic brain injury. What does science say about music and the effects on the brain?

COHEN: Well, that's a big question, and I'm not a neuroscientist. So I don't, you know, I come in as a social worker, and I have a sort of a working knowledge of applying this and watching the results. And my goal is to make this a standard of care so that anyone of five million-plus people with Alzheimer's in the United States, and this is something that families, if they want to use this, it might very well work to improve not only the lives of their loved ones but their own because it becomes - caregiver stress is very difficult. And if someone is very agitated, life is very hard for both the person with the Alzheimer's and for the caregiver.

BLOCK: Is there any concern about further isolating patients who may already be very much lost inside themselves?

COHEN: Well, you know, Melissa, that's funny because that was probably one of - when I started this, I had many questions, and I didn't know when people would say that to me. You know, people, gee, you're going to put headphones on them and isolate them. And so we got funding for 200 iPods to try this out in a larger scale in 2008 in four facilities around New York. And we wanted to see how well we replicated this, what was the feedback from the professional staff and from their residents.

And what happened was the 33 professional staff across these facilities all came up with no instances of increased isolation, but a flood of stories of increased socialization. People wanted to share their music with others: Here, you've got to listen to this, or what was the name of that song? Or, gee, to the nonprofessional person sweeping the floor, hey, you're about my age, you know, The Andrew Sisters, who was, you know, Papa? So the music is great, but to me, the, perhaps, even bigger win is people having better and more relationships with those around them.

BLOCK: Is part of what you confront when you're dealing, say, with nursing home administrators that there's just not an appetite for this kind of individualized care? There's certainly a lot of acceptance of pushing medication, but maybe not an iPod, say, with a playlist.

COHEN: Well, it's true that nursing homes due to funding cuts that are happening have a very difficult time. I mean, they want to provide individualized care. They want to - there are a lot of great people in nursing homes that really want to give their residents the very best. But when funding is cut and then they have fewer people each year to serve the same number of residents, it's really difficult. So to say, yes, we're going to - we can make these other expenditures.

It's not reimbursable. Where is the money coming from? We're busy laying off people. They're in a tough position. And so my goal has been to find ways to bring the cost of this down to zero. So let's get the community involved. Let's - since there have been so many generations of new digital devices, they come fast and furious. Well, we have the old iPods - many of us in our drawers at home - let's bring them in. I mean, on Long Island, there are five school districts right now that are running iPod donation drives. It's an amazing intergenerational project.

BLOCK: There's a lovely moment in the movie where we meet an Alzheimer's patient named John Wolski, who apparently, we learned, had a song and dance background, right? He was on stage as a young man.

COHEN: Yes.

BLOCK: And we see him start listening to the iPod.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ALIVE INSIDE: A STORY OF MUSIC AND MEMORY")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: "Oh, Johnny, Oh." How perfect?

BLOCK: And his eyes light up, and he starts clapping. And his feet are tap-dancing on the floor, it looks like, in his wheelchair.

COHEN: Well, he was. He was, you know, it reconnected him with, again, with his past, in a sense.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ALIVE INSIDE: A STORY OF MUSIC AND MEMORY")

JOHN WOLSKI: (Singing) Some enchanted evenings, you may see someone - you may see a (unintelligible)...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I wish I had a voice like him.

BLOCK: And, Dan, we hear another patient in that center saying, I wish I had a voice like him.

COHEN: That's right. It's part of that joining in and loving the fact that somebody who they spend, you know, a lot of time with, you know, during the days and weeks and months and years is acting in a way maybe they haven't seen before. And so, you know, live music, I mean, is present and is ideal. But the issue is live music is episodic. So maybe once a week or, you know, somebody comes in or there could be activities as a group. And the beauty of the iPod is that - is this total personalization that's just not possible in the current environment.

BLOCK: Well, Dan Cohen, thanks so much for talking to us about it.

COHEN: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: Dan Cohen is a social worker. He runs a nonprofit called Music and Memory. He's featured in a documentary called "Alive Inside" that's being screened for the first time tonight in New York. You can watch scenes from the film at our website and get some tips on how to use Dan's method with a member of your own family. That's at npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: This is NPR.

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