Elderly, unresponsive man in a nursing home is transformed by music

In this outtake from Alive Inside, we meet an elderly man who's been in a nursing home for 10 years, and who is disengaged, listless and unresponsive to his environment. Then he is exposed to music from his earlier life, and is instantly transformed, engaging with the people around him. Oliver Sacks provides commentary in the clip, which is inspirational and amazing at the same time.

Old Man In Nursing Home Reacts To Hearing Music From His Era (Thanks, Fipi Lele!)


  1. Awesome stuff. And for anyone who hasn’t read Oliver Sacks’s touching, intelligent and thought-provoking books, you’re really missing out.

  2. Wow, that was really moving.  Such is the power of music + the labyrinth of the brain!  Thanks for bringing this to my attention… I’m a softy for elderly folk, especially those like Henry who live in homes away from their families. 

  3. This remind me in an offhand way of the acting troupe who would perform fake weddings and receptions at nursing homes every weekend. Granted, the patients were generally a bit higher functioning, but they really came alive when they heard the big band music and saw the bride. It didn’t matter than they didn’t know who was getting “married” they all were in their own worlds anyway.

  4. Seems like I read something about this phenomenon a long time ago, probably from Sacks or one of his colleagues. This is the first time I’ve seen the process documented on video. I don’t believe I was as mentally prepared for it as I thought I was. It’s just beyond words to see someone so mentally worn-down be restored, however briefly.

    Then I temper my emotions by remembering that, in another 60 or 70 years, nurses will be gingerly slipping earphones onto residents’ heads so they can listen to some Skrillex.

  5. Am I the only one finds this sad?  I hate to be such a downer, but how is this an uplifting story?  It’s just another example of the phlegmatic state of neurology. The scam of Sacks’ career remains that he offers sops to those of us whose brains are working (for now) instead of much help to the victims. Imagine a bone surgeon who, instead of fixing a broken leg, wrote books reveling in the whimsey of the limp. Would we carry him around on our shoulder if he “discovered” that people with a broken foot tap their functioning foot when they hear music? 

    When it comes to disorders of the brain, we are using the same general non-cures that we had in the 1960’s. The iPod can’t hide the fact that this is some old medicine. Hell, Kant could have (and kinda did) prescribe it. I think the nurse is twice the hero of Sacks. Someone give her one of his honorary degrees. Oliver made the right call in choosing to be a gnomic popularizer rather than a serious practitioner. It would have been so much more work, and he would have gotten so much less screen time.

    1.  I understand and sympathise.  But if you know a way to make this patient responsive without music…

      Pragmatically, we only get to use the treatments we actually have.   Personally, I’m more concerned that playing music to unresponsive patients is something we could have been doing for years, and it STILL won’t be adopted systematically.

      (As it happens, I can help a little.  I’ll mention it to a friend who works in such a place.  It’s not much, but it’s all I can do  — and it’s not often you get to do even that much, is it?)

    2. Also, if you watch the video again you’ll see he wasn’t unresponsive before listening to the music anyway. 

      The first time you see it it sounds like distressed mumbling, but if you watch it again you’ll see he started singing a song when he heard the nurse mention music.

      She talks over him though because that wouldn’t make a good video!

    3. Compared to the neuroscience we will have in the future (hopefully), Sacks may be the equivalent of an ancient trepanner or phlebotomist, but I don’t think you can characterise his medical work as a ‘scam’ on that basis. Lacking Dr McCoy coming through a time-warp and dispensing magic pills to us all, this is the best we have. And his writing about it and presenting documentaries on the subject is part of the process of improving the state of the art. Where do you think new neuroscientists come from, if not from those inspired by good writing about the subject?

    4.  I’m just trying to imagine now if our brains were as simple as a limb or even if our limbs were as complex as a human brain, now that would be profound.  I think it’s a weak analogy.

    5. Have you actually read any of Sacks’ work? Have you read Awakenings? He treated actual patients who were locked inside their own heads for decades and brought them back into the world. He has treated many, many ill people. What kind of scam is that?

      1.  Well, the vicious bugger is obviously going out there and telling people ways to help others.   That’s horribly unfair to the medical-industrial complex and ripe for corrective legislation!

  6. I think for my future carers I will now go get a tattoo on my chest – “Please play German post-punk, Maudlin of the Well and Deerhunter for me.”

  7. His state of mind is not that rare, it’s called Institutional  Metal Illness. It’s deplorable, like a tiger that paces in it’s cage or a venomous snake that bights itself to death. Failure To Thrive presents in many ways. 

      1. Heh…I was thinking “bights” was used to indicate a snake tying itself up in knots.

        Great viddy, but they had me right from the top with Glass’ Etude No. 2

  8. I can’t go even one day without music – it really makes me wonder how much of this man’s locked in state of mind is true illness or just insane boredom by not being stimulated for so many years.

    1. This is the reason a lot of elderly people seem the way they do. This does not mean that they do not have brain damage from strokes or diseases that affect the brain though. However, this just makes it harder to reach out to them and take care of them. Taking care of one elderly person with a slowly degenerating brain  is harder than taking care of two babies and unlike babies they don’t grow so it’s not a 6 month or year long thing. It can be 20 years of wiping bottoms, carrying a grown man onto a toilet, trying to keep him from turning around and drinking out of the bowl, while you try to get the rag ready to wash him. Day in and day out all hours of the night. I’m not kidding. So when your parents get older…. just hope they die quickly. 

      Frankly, after seeing the futility of expensive “homes” the chaos of medicare and the overwhelming life destroying task of being locked up by another person’s disease for 10 years of your life… I think I’ll probably just start doing a new year inventory of my mental faculties each year starting at 70 or so. That way the first year I come up short I can just take myself out with some dignity.

  9. I wish they wouldn’t have pre-empted the main illustration with so many comments beforehand. far better to have started by showing us. Explain it later.

    1.  He’s a migraineur, so he may not be interested.  I agree, though; I have enjoyed most of his books very much and learned a lot.

  10. I sent this to my mom who worked for years in Manitoba as a Public Health nurse and provided home care to seniors. She is also now herself going through nursing care hell with her own mother. Anyway, in the absence of insight from me, here are her comments on the video:

    [[ Thanks for this site, indeed it is very sweet. We so need to get past the physical needs and view the psycho-social as even more important when caring for those in care homes. There is a lovely program in Australia being used called “Spark of Life” that speaks to this need, it is not rocket science, but challenges caregivers to think and do simple things differently. They have a free newsletter I have signed up for. I am thinking about becoming a member so I can access other materials, I don’t think it is that expensive. ]]

  11. This makes perfect sense, music resonates with people on such a deep level. We have all experienced that wave of nostalgia at hearing a song from our youth, I think it is at least as powerful as the sense of smell. I think music is an anchor to reality.

  12. Years ago, nearly all care facilities had music piped everywhere and in most of them you could request songs.  Some of them used the music as part of a reward/punishment system, unfortunately.  To save money all that’s been done away with.

    Using Apple-branded, high-cost mp3 players is probably a vastly more expensive way to achieve a slightly more personalized implementation.  It’s still ripe for use and/or abuse as part of a reward/punishment system, and it will take tremendously more staff time to administrate and administer – especially if you use these Apple players that require highly specific loading and charging infrastructure.

    On the other claw, this method is very amenable to individual activism – you could go buy a whole bunch of cheap chinese mp3 players that’ll run off AAA nimh batteries, have the local college students load them up with music from the college library (labeling them broadly “classical” or “40s jazz” or whatever) and go hand them out at all the care facilities.

  13. My 83 year old mother has moderate dementia and lives in a nursing home.  Her mp3 player is used daily and has the power to turn crankiness into joy.  She is surprised all over again when we watch YouTube videos of the Andrews Sisters, Spike Jones, and yes, Cab Calloway too!   Check out the SweetPea mp3 player – made for toddlers, but perfect for nursing home use too.

Comments are closed.