“Alive Inside” is a wonderful film and movement that awakens the Alzheimer’s mind and connects generations, comforting elders and rescuing youth. The film’s Director, Michael Rossato-Bennett, shares how it all began. IntegratedMDCare.com
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Dr. Bob: Today’s guest is Michael Rossato-Bennett-Bennett, the director of the film, Alive Inside, and the founder and executive director of the Alive Inside Foundation. Alive Inside is a phenomenal film, and I highly recommend you find a way to watch it. The Alive Inside Foundation is dedicated to healing loneliness and disconnection in all of our lives, but especially in the lives of the very young and the very old who are living with dementia. They partner with communities to connect the generations and shift our relationship with life, aging and growing up. The Foundation seeks to end loneliness using empathy, music, life story, and film.
This interview with Michael is an intimate exploration into the mind and heart of a man who seems to have stumbled upon his purpose and has been inspired to create in a much more expansive way since doing so. I hope you enjoy it.
So, Michael, your life has changed pretty significantly in the last several years. From what I can gather, what started as a project that you couldn’t really foresee a whole lot coming out of, to what has been created in your life now and looks amazing. What’s it like? Tell me the journey a little bit.
Michael Rossato-Bennett: Well, like every life, probably the most important things are your failures. Those are what you learn from, like your woundings, your emptiness, your hungers. These are the things that actually fuel you. When nothing else makes sense, I’m deeply interested in what makes sense when nothing else makes sense, and I think that’s a very apt conversation to have in this time because I’m sure I’m not alone. I think if everyone were honest, they would just say right now, “What the heck is going on?”
Dr. Bob: How did we get here?
Michael Rossato-Bennett: How did we get here? How do we tell our children your president doesn’t tell the truth all the time? How do we say your government isn’t really trying to protect you? We’re confused. I mean I am, and I have been many times in my life. I’m going to get a little philosophical here, but I think anyone living in a predatory culture that doesn’t quite know that they’re living in a predatory culture, has a feeling of disquiet and confusion, and like all of us who are trying to do something in the world, our efforts are constantly called into question. What am I doing? Am I helping create a just world? Am I helping create a world where life is recognizing and aiding life, or am I deeply investing in a system that is reducing the quality of life, literally for the planet at this time? I think every one of our occupations, from farmer to doctor, has to wrestle with these questions right now, what is my place in this world that we’ve created, and, unfortunately, we don’t get to remove ourselves from it I don’t think.
Dr. Bob: It’s interesting. As you’re talking about this, and I don’t know if you have children or not, but as you’re talking about this, I’m flashing on my 11-year-old son, who is right at the verge … If I asked him what does it feel like to live in a predatory world, I think he would know enough about what I’m asking to form an opinion and connect with it. But I, also, feel like he’s still living in this other world where he can slip back into this sense of comfort and not allow that to influence his day to day existence.
Michael Rossato-Bennett: I mean this is at the core of everything I’m working on, and it’s simply the recognition of the idea that we actually do mature, that there is actually an arc to our lives. When I was 21, I was competing my ass off to win the steak knives at my job for Cool Vent Aluminum telephone salesmen. I wanted to be the best Cool Vent Aluminum salesman because the sales manager told me that I was nothing if I couldn’t book these appointments for his salesmen to sell this poor, older people aluminum siding and new windows.
Dr. Bob: And you believed that? You believed that story.
Michael Rossato-Bennett: I believed it.
Dr. Bob: Yeah, you did.
Michael Rossato-Bennett: I believed it, and really, honestly at that point, all I wanted to do was be good, be recognized, to succeed, to have some validation, and honestly, I didn’t think that the people who were in authority, that the people who were older than I was, I didn’t think that they didn’t know what they were doing. I thought they knew what they were doing.
But your 11-year-old son, he’s awakening in a world where it’s obvious that we don’t know what’s going on, that something is happening, and it’s amazing what’s happening. I mean basically what’s happening is we’re going through a major psychic, intellectual, spiritual, existential definition of what it means to be human, and what it means to be human together, and ideas that we’ve had for thousands of years are no longer functional in the face of these incredible tools that we’ve created in the last 20 or 30 years. The computer has just turned human culture on its head, and we are not ready for it.
Dr. Bob: Right.
Michael Rossato-Bennett: And we’re innocents, and I think in a hundred years we’ll look back and this and go … Just like slavery. At one point, slavery seemed to be a pretty good business model. We try not to do that anymore, at least in a recognizable form. But in a non-recognizable form, we haven’t given up that business model, and that’s what we’re dealing with.
I mean you’re a doctor, and I work in healthcare to some degree as well, and Marshall McLuhan is a great media thinker, a thinker about media, and he said years and … Maybe 60 years ago or 50 years ago, he said, “The medium is the message,” and I never understood what that meant, but I understand what that means now, that basically, the structures that we create determine the outcomes, no matter who is in them, or no matter what the outcomes are. When you have a lot of people making money on petroleum, you get plastic in the ocean. It doesn’t matter what people do. In 50 years, we won’t be relying on petroleum. We won’t have the pressure to create as much plastic, and maybe we can solve that problem.
Dr. Bob: Well, so fascinating. Great perspective. Love it. Not exactly where I was anticipating the conversation was going to go, but I love it, and I want to hear … So you take that. I’m sure that your awareness is continuing to mature, to evolve, and it’s influenced by and influencing what you are doing day to day to improve the lives of the human beings that you’re concerned about, as we both are.
What’s happening in your life? I want to know what you’re doing. What’s the Foundation doing? How are you right now serving in a way that is trying to achieve the most benefit for humankind?
Michael Rossato-Bennett: Well, I mean that’s a big thing to say.
Dr. Bob: I know. Because it’s happening. What you’re doing is serving humankind in a positive way.
Michael Rossato-Bennett: Right, right. I’m not young. I’m not a child anymore, and you get to a certain point in your life, and you ask yourself, “Okay. What can I do to help other people,” because helping yourself is kind of boring after a while. It just becomes boring. So you want to expand your relationships with other people, and it’s interesting.
Dr. Bob: I lost you for a second there. You said interesting, and then I lost you.
Michael Rossato-Bennett: I was relating to these thoughts. Okay. Sorry. All of my thinking comes out of working with these elders with dementia and meeting them. You’re right when you say my life has transformed. I mean I walked into my first nursing home, and I wanted to run because I’d had really some very traumatic experiences in hospitals when I was a child. They put that ether on my face. I don’t think they do that anymore, and I struggled and screamed, and yelled, and fought. They finally just gave me shots in my butt. But that smell of health care, of the hospital, I swore I would never, ever step inside a hospital or a healthcare facility, place forever. I promised myself I would never, ever do that.
Then here I am. I had been hired to make a website for a guy who was bringing iPods into nursing homes, and he thought that it would be a good, new thing to do, and so I did it. There I was sitting in front of a man, Henry. He was the first one that I really saw the power of music to wake the hidden vitality of a mind, a mind that had lost its capacity to connect with itself and with others. I didn’t want to be there. It was very sad for me to see this human being, this shell, if you will, of a human being, who didn’t seem to be able to come out of that shell.
Then we gave him … Millions of people have seen this clip. Actually, over 100 million people have seen this clip.Dr. Bob: Really. That’s where it’s at, at this point. Incredible.Michael Rossato-Bennett: Well, it was actually one of the earlier clips to go viral on Facebook. So it was still back when Facebook was becoming before they put all these clamps and started monetizing everyone’s life. It was back when they were giving it away so that people would join, and so it’s a completely different animal now, and that’s what we’re discovering right now, and a very dangerous animal as well.
But anyway, so here’s Henry, and we give him some Cab Calloway, and I get to experience a human being awakening. This guy, he starts moving, and his eyes light up, and he starts singing. He starts making poetry. When I took the music away, I thought he would turn off like a ragdoll.
Dr. Bob: Like a light switch going off.
Michael Rossato-Bennett: Yeah. Like the electricity was going off. But, no, there was this residual aliveness and connection, and he talked to me, and he was so beautiful. The whole world saw this. I mean I went to bed that night and my son … That I posted it. No, I didn’t post it. I put it on my friend, Dan Cohen’s website, and some kid found it and started spreading it in the Reddit community. I don’t know if you know what Reddit is.
Dr. Bob: I’m a little bit familiar with it, yeah.
Michael Rossato-Bennett: It’s a community of young people on the internet, and my son is in that community, and he saw … He came into my room. He said, “Dad, they’re talking about your film on Reddit,” and I was like, “Really,” and he goes, “Yeah. It’s gone from 300 views to 400 views,” and I was like, “Oh, my God. That’s amazing.” Oh, my God, and then we went to bed. We woke up the next morning, and it was at 180,000 views. On the next day, like a million views. It just kept going.
But the amazing thing was, for me, I mean I thought we’d discovered the cure for Alzheimer’s Disease. I was like, oh, all you got to do is give them music, and it makes their Alzheimer’s go away.
Then there’s, of course, a sad realization that, no, you’re just waking up some very deep pathways that are actually spared. They’re pathways that are very deep in this elemental brain. Not in the forebrain, which is really the core of I think what I’m working with right now, and that is that when you don’t know where to go, sometimes the deepest parts of ourselves hold profound and unexplored wisdom, and I constantly go to those deepest places, like music. Music, by now, it’s part of our DNA. It’s literally been adapted to our DNA. I mean a child, an infant, a human infant will respond to a beat and other primates won’t in the same way. Yes.
Dr. Bob: I watched the film a couple times, Alive Inside. I’ve watched it a couple times. I just watched it again last night. I was, again, just blown away by the little toddler who was conducting.
Michael Rossato-Bennett: Oh, my God.
Dr. Bob: The natural instinct in him, and he’s a little performer. But I agree, you can see it in almost every child from the time that they’re able to interact with the world, that they respond to music, and they’ve been responding to it since they were in utero.
Michael Rossato-Bennett: Yeah.
Dr. Bob: And that never goes away, unless you lose your hearing.Michael Rossato-Bennett: Which is another enormous problem. About half of the people who staff thinks have dementia, they probably have a little bit, but more, they have hearing problems. It’s an enormous problem in elder care.
So what are we doing now? At first, I was like, “Oh, my God, let’s get everybody who has dementia their music, and let’s make that happen.” In some ways, that’s happening.
Michael Rossato-Bennett: It’s hard to realize what we don’t know, right, or what we didn’t know. When I was making Alive Inside, we had so much trouble getting people to try this, to give these elders their music, and it was really a struggle because it was a new idea. But then the hundredth monkey syndrome kicked in a couple of years ago, and now this idea has literally spread like wildfire across the world, and to such a degree that I think … I was joking with a friend way back then. I said what’s going to happen is some day I’m going to say I made this movie about how you can play music for people that’s their music, that gives them an emotional reaction, and if they have Alzheimer’s it will awaken parts of their brain that have been forgotten, and I said in five years, I have this feeling that people will go why did you make a movie about that? Everyone knows that.
Dr. Bob: Yeah. Right, what’s so different.
Michael Rossato-Bennett: Everybody knows that. We know that, and that’s where we are. Everyone in the world knows this now. I mean I had some part to play with it, but it’s that hundredth monkey thing. When something is important, and you have a disease like Alzheimer’s where there is no cure, and if you have something that can help, it’s going to spread like wildfire, and I think that’s what’s happened.
Dr. Bob: Well, of course, it’s very helpful for people who have Alzheimer’s to try to awaken that and to bring them a sense of joy and connection, but it’s, also, incredibly beneficial for people without Alzheimer’s, who are just lonely, right? They’re just the people throughout the nation, the world, who are isolated or limited in their own homes, or in assisted living communities, or in nursing homes. The ability to give somebody, to connect them with the music that has been meaningful for them at various points of their life, brings joy, brings comfort, brings connection. There’s no way to understate the impact.
So understanding that I’m curious … I’m in San Diego. I have a concierge practice, and I take care of people who are in their homes who are dealing with end-of-life issues. They have dementia. They have cancer. They have heart disease. It’s a small practice. It’s like a concierge practice for people with complex illnesses and who are approaching the end of their life.
As part of that, we have integrated therapies, and I have a couple of music therapists who go out. They’re angels. They connect with the patients, and we see them flower. We see them blossom. Some of our patients, with these therapies, music, massage, acupuncture, reiki, they go from being bedbound, and miserable, and wanting to die, to get re-engaged with life and getting-
Michael Rossato-Bennett: And it makes sense.
Dr. Bob: And it makes sense, total, and I go into nursing homes, and I’ll see people there, and we just created a foundation. We just got the 501c3 determination from the IRS, so we’re ready to make this thing happen. How do we take advantage of what you have created to implement and leverage that in San Diego? Let’s talk about how this is actually happening on the ground.
Michael Rossato-Bennett: Okay. Well, first of all, you’ve opened up some really big cans of worms here.
Dr. Bob: I have a knack for doing that.
Michael Rossato-Bennett: Most of the people who have dementia and Alzheimer’s, they are not in institutions. They live at home, and we have a culture that defines people as valuable to the degree that they’re productive, and it’s deeply ingrained in us. It’s ingrained in our religion, and our morality, and our laws, even to the point where we’ve created lots of meaningless work, just because people want to be working, and the dark side of that, not the meaningless work, but this idea that we have no value unless we’re productive, is the elders that you’re finding. What is their productivity when they’re just sitting? They can see their death, and they probably feel they’re not contributing. As a matter of fact, they might even feel that they’re a burden, which is a horrible thing for a human being to feel.
One of the things that I’ve been so intrigued about, about people with Alzheimer’s, is they forget so much, but it’s strange what they don’t forget. They don’t forget what they used to be. They don’t forget that they’re having trouble communicating, and they used to be able to communicate, or at least it seems like that to me.
You opened up another can of worms, which is loneliness. The UK just appointed a minister of loneliness. 40% of Americans report problems with feeling lonely. We’re discovering the dark side of social media, which is this capacity that it has to make people judge themselves, their real life against the sort of phony life that’s presented one snapshot at a time and edited and Photoshopped. People feel this kind of not being good enough, and when you feel not good enough, you feel separate, and when you feel separate, you feel alone, and that is one of the greatest pains a human being can ever feel, and that’s really …
I had a very hard time growing up and a lot of isolation, and I shut myself down in many ways, and that’s why when I saw this older man, Henry, wake up, I was like, “Oh, my goodness. Oh, my God, we can wake up. We can be awakened,” and that’s what you’ve described with your music therapists go in, and these people are like, “Oh, wow, yes. There are rhythms of life that I can share with you, and we can sing, and we can do music, and it can even go back into my memory, and oh, I have these stories I could tell you.”
I decided that the place that I wanted to play with was trying to reduce pain. Like you, as a doctor, you want to reduce-
You want to reduce the pain and the struggle, and one of the greatest struggles that I see is loneliness and disconnection. I feel like our culture … There are things we all need to survive, and to live, and to thrive, and sometimes commercial society says, “All right. You want those things; you got to pay for them.” So it puts walls between what we want and what there is, and that’s not really the way life works. If you swim in the ocean and you grab a fish, it’s not like you paid for it. Well, you swam for it. That’s for sure. Or you pluck a pear from a tree. It’s not like you grew that tree.
I’m not sure that this sort of way we are creating safety for ourselves is working, and I think it’s falling apart in many ways, and so, again, I go to the very deepest place. So I developed these headphones that you could give to somebody with dementia, and it has a little hole in it, and you can put their music in it, and you can plug your headphones into their headphones, and so you can listen together, and your eyes can meet, and you can be in the music together, and I thought that was beautiful.
Then I made an app so that anyone could sit with another person and try and figure out what is that deep music that’s inside the soul of another person. So you can do that.
But the key thing I feel is that what I’ve learned. If you watch Alive Inside, you see all these people awakening. But what you don’t see is me on the other side of the camera going, “Oh, tell me that story. Oh, my God, you’re so beautiful. Oh, yes, I want to know more and tell me. Flower. Let me see you flower.”
We are creatures that are called into becoming. You take a child, and you just put them in a room, and you leave them there for 14 years, you’re not going to have a great kid, but if you go in there every day and you teach them how to be human, and you teach them the rules of being human, you bond with other people, you connect to them, you be kind to them, you look in their eyes, you learn to feel what comes out of another person’s eyes, and you learn to give to another person through your eyes. I mean the eyes is the only organ that goes both ways. There are both receptors and apparently … I was reading the other day … I wish I could quote it better. But apparently, there’s something that comes out of the eyes. That’s why we call the eyes the windows of the soul. You’re a doctor.
Dr. Bob: I’m not sure what emanates from the eyes, but it kind of feels like when you’re in somebody’s gaze, when you’re looking deep into their eyes, that there’s something either reflecting back or coming out of it for sure.Michael Rossato-Bennett: At the very least, there’s expression. At the very least, there are tears. Something is coming out, even if it isn’t a ray. But that’s the amazing thing that we’re understanding now, and this goes back to the illusion of loneliness. We’ve created the structure where you can be lonely, where you can be a separate entity that doesn’t connect with other entities, and the terrible thing is that’s engineered. The truth is that we are not separate. We’re talking over Skype, and my ideas are affecting your brain, and your ideas are affecting me. But if we were sitting in the same room for the amount of time that we’ve been sitting, your cells would be in my body, and my cells would be in yours. Every cell in your body I think changes every seven years, and the building blocks of you have been white people, and black people, and brown people, and hippos, and dogs, and ducks, and dinosaurs, and fish.
I was reading this amazing book about old growth forests, like dirt. There’s no such thing as dirt. There are rocks, and there’s whatever, but every single piece of nutrition that has ever passed through your lips only has nutrition because vegetable matter has gone through the butt of a bug. Dirt is bug pooh, and without bug pooh, there is no nutrition in anything that grows.
So we’re not special. We are part of everything, and we’ve just created this system that ends up taking our children and putting them in these institutions, and telling them to stay there for 20 years and to compete for a few little remaining spots at some big colleges. As children, we’re forgetting how to be children.
And we have our elders, and, oh, my God, have we abandoned them. Oh, you’re worthless. You just go sit in the little room over there.
I’m sorry. Now you got a little emotion running in me, and so I said let’s bring these two groups together. Let’s bring the very old and the very young together, and what you do when you do that, it’s like a magnet. These groups are meant to be together, and they’re engineered apart.
So basically a lot of people have seen Alive Inside, and they call me, and they say, “Hey, let’s do something.” I’m like, “Okay. Let’s do something.” So we’re down in Mexico, and there are these abandoned elders, who are literally taken off the streets by this foundation, and of the thousands and thousands that they could help, they can help 250 a year or something, or actually more at a time, because the population changes, but it’s only 250 at a time, and they were bringing in these young psychology students who sit with them for 14 weeks for an hour or two, and they detective. They use the app, and they find the music of these elders of their youth, and they listen to it together, and they learn their life stories.
We’ve created another thing called Memories, which is this … It’s a very simple computer program that basically lets you create a digital, communally create a digital scrapbook for somebody. My vision is it’s going to happen I the next year, is I want every hospital room, every nursing home, that you’re going to be able to go and some volunteer will have created the life story for these elders, so that anyone in the healthcare community can just scan the QR code on their picture … We’re making these necklaces for them, and you’ll know their life story in two minutes. You’ll know where they came from, who they loved, what they did.
Dr. Bob: I love that.
Michael Rossato-Bennett: What their music was because it’s just crazy. I’ve seen so many healthcare situations, where I’ve seen people care for people for 10 years, and love them, and not know who they were.
Dr. Bob: Exactly. Not know a thing about them.Michael Rossato-Bennett: Not know a thing about them.
Dr. Bob: Right. And that’s what drove me crazy for years and years. I was an emergency physician, and I see these incredible people coming through, and they’re a shell. They’re in this shell, and if someone takes the time to actually connect with them and ask them something beyond when’s the last time you have a bowel movement? Where does it hurt? But to actually be interested in who they are. I was just memorized, fascinated by what would come out, and that’s a lot of why I transitioned in my career into doing something where I got to honor these people for the person they are and always have been, even though at this stage, it’s physically they’re different. The spirit inside of them, the essence of that person is unchanged from where it was when they were flying bombers in World War II, or dancing in competitions at 18 in the 1930s.
And so what we do, I think we are aligned in the work that we’re doing. I will want to connect with you further because I really do want to talk about how to bring the programs that you’re talking about, especially the program with the youth together with the elders, and sharing this.
Michael Rossato-Bennett: Oh, I would love to talk.
Dr. Bob: So we may end up trying to schedule a second call. I’m going to wrap it up soon, and I just really appreciate your honest, thoroughly passionate view that you were able to share. I do want to make sure that people know how to get more information, and there will be links on my website to the Alive Inside Foundation site, and I’m happy to connect people with you. If you want, you just let me know.
Michael Rossato-Bennett: Yeah.
Dr. Bob: What kind of connections you’re looking for, how we can help to support your passion and your movement because it’s life-changing and it’s revolutionary. It shouldn’t seem revolutionary, because it’s pretty simple basic stuff, make connections, and you create joy, right?Michael Rossato-Bennett: Well, I think it’s revolutionary. We call it an empathy revolution, because certain things in our human vocabulary have been devalued, and a lot of people, myself included, it’s taken long life journeys to be able to just honor the treasure that I have inside my chest. The fact that I am alive is such a treasure, and it’s so devalued in our culture. The children, we don’t honor the life in children. We don’t honor the life on the planet. We don’t honor the life in our elders, and it’s all there is, and we only get it for a very brief time, and it breaks my heart to think of how many years I spent beating myself up and not enjoying life, and I look around, and I see so many people who are not able to really … They only get this brief time with this incredible treasure called life.
And that’s why I bring the elders and the kids together because I think the elders actually teach the kids, “Hey, you’re alive, and you’re not going to alive for much longer, and look at me. This is what the end of life looks like, and guess what? I’m engaged here. I’ve only got a short time left, and I’m engaged.”
It’s been shown that older people live with incredible pain and smile, whereas middle-aged people if their back goes out and they lay in their bed for a week.
Dr. Bob: That’s right. And they bitch and moan about how miserable they are.
Michael Rossato-Bennett: Yes.
Dr. Bob: Well, don’t beat yourself up too badly about time that you’ve lost. You have lots of time left to contribute, and you’re obviously doing a great job of that. So Michael Rossato-Bennett-Bennett, thank you so much for taking time and sharing your passion and more about your project and your mission, and best of luck to you, and hopefully, you’ll be willing to come back, and we’ll do some followup on another episode.
Michael Rossato-Bennett: Well, thank you for calling me, Bob. That was very sweet.