Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory — how one iPod can make a world of difference

Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory, the Sundance Audience Award-winning documentary by Michael Rossato-Bennett that opens today in the U.S., soars on a single, inescapable note — that for people suffering from Alzheimer's and dementia, iPods and personal playlists can make a transformative difference.

Alive Inside presents the work of Dan Cohen, executive director of Music & Memory. A non-profit organization, its goal is to train healthcare professionals and care-givers in the use of iPods and iTunes, and the creation of individualized playlists, for people with cognitive and physical disorders.

Cohen is followed as he visits several individuals at several care facilities whose conditions have resulted in them withdrawing from the world and those who love them in it. In each case, Cohen provides them with a personal music player and playlist — an iPod shuffle, likely due to their low cost and high portability — and a set of headphones.

The results, as presented, are remarkable. Smiles appear. Voices rise up in song. Emotions swell. Memories come flooding back. Communication becomes possible.

The idea that music can play a role in memory isn't new. Both live and recorded music has been used to help treat Alzheimer's and dementia for years. Plans like the National Dementia Strategies in the UK include information on music and its benefits. Research shows that earlier memories persist longer, and music — like picture boards, scents, and other sense-triggers — can help tap into those.

As with many things, however, the advancement of technology can bring with it an advancement in accessibility and inclusivity. Technology at its best should make the world and what's in it available to everyone. Alive Inside shows the challenges involved in that on several levels. Affordability is a factor, as is portability, but so is availability, both of the devices themselves and the information about them and what they can do.

Renowned neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks — upon whose work the movie Awakenings was based — and famed musician Bobby McFerrin — Don't Worry, Be Happy — appear in support of the documentary. Sacks speaks to the process, McFerrin shares a group experience. Both talk of the connective power of music, both within ourselves and between us and others.

That's juxtaposed against the current healthcare system, which professionals interviewed for the documentary say will gladly pay hundreds of dollars for medication but is largely intractable when it comes to mere dozens of dollars for something like music. It's the difference between keeping someone alive and giving them a life.

My grandmother passed away late last year. She was in her mid-90s and in a care facility. As time went on, our ability to connect with her and her with the world diminished greatly. I don't know if a personal music system would have helped, but I do know she loved her symphonies and her hymns, and I wish it had occurred to me to try. I wish so very much we could have maintained our connection longer.

That's ultimately what Alive Inside is about — connection. Cohen's connection to this cause. Music's connection to memory. Our connection to the world and to each other.

If you are interested in what technology can help us achieve, if you work or are involved in care-giving, or if you have or know someone suffering from Alzheimer's or dementia, watch Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory. Then strap on an iPod or iPhone or iPad, hit play, and remember.

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.