The Miracle and/or Science of Music in Dementialand

After returning from a vacation that involved my husband and me driving halfway across the country (literally–from Iowa to South Carolina) and back again, I am more amazed than ever at the miracle of GPS (aka Global Positioning System). I know GPS is nothing new, but as it becomes more advanced–for instance, telling us when we will encounter traffic–I realize I am increasingly dependent on it. And it blows my mind.

Several people, including one who is in our university’s Geography department, have explained to me exactly how GPS works and why it has become more accurate in recent years. Their explanations have been quite user-friendly, but I still cannot wrap my brain around GPS. Since I can’t make myself truly understand the science behind GPS, I just call it a miracle and live in awe. For the record, I am the same way about 3-D printing. I recently read that someone was able to use a 3-D printer to produce a violin. Call it science. Call it a miracle. Either way, it’s pretty awesome.

There’s something in Dementialand that can be called a miracle–or explained by science. Take your pick. But, no matter your explanation, it’s amazing. And, compared to medications and other therapies, it’s dirt cheap and has zero side effects.

It’s music.

I was reminded of this when I was on vacation in South Carolina. A wonderful family friend was telling me about her mom, who is in her 80’s and has Alzheimer’s. She said that the only thing that brings her mom comfort…is music. She may not remember the names of her family members or recall going on vacations. She isn’t able to talk about her time with her husband, who has passed away, or reminisce about when her children were young. And, yet, she remembers the words to songs…and that seems to bring her some sense of peace.

It’s certainly not the first time I’ve heard this. In fact, I was volunteering for a hospice years ago when the daughter of a woman with Frontotemporal Dementia told me she wanted to show me a miracle. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I walked into her mom’s bedroom. There was her mom, curled up in a ball, in bed. She hadn’t been able to speak in months, and her current state prompted her kids to continually ask, “Mom, are you in there?”

There was an old-school cassette tape player in the room. Her daughter put in a tape that they had recorded of their church congregation singing hymns. As soon as the tape started, her mom’s lips started moving to the words. If sounds came out, they were only whispers, but the family took this as proof that, as they put it, she was still “in there.”

“See? Have you ever seen a miracle like this before?” the daughter asked me over the music. “It’s a miracle from the heavens.”

I didn’t say it wasn’t a miracle. However, I did give her a brief scientific explanation of why this happens. (And, it does happen frequently among people with dementia.) I explained that language is stored in a different area of the brain than rhythm. In many dementias, language may be lost to the disease while rhythm is protected. Words that are associated with rhythm (e.g., song lyrics, prayers) remain although other verbal skills are gone.

Someone who can’t talk can sing. I’ve witnessed a person with end-stage Alzheimer’s singing New York, New York when he had not talked in months. He sounded just like Frank Sinatra. Someone who can’t walk can dance. I’ve seen CNAs “dance” someone from the bed to the toilet when they are unsteady on their feet. The best CNAs understand how rhythm can help with movement for people with dementia, and they use that to their advantage. And it’s all because of the way dementia impacts the brain.

As I explained this to the woman whose mother had Frontotemporal Dementia, she gave me a blank look. After I was done talking, she stared at me for a few seconds.

Finally, she said glumly, “So I guess it’s not a miracle after all.”

I had just explained away a moment of joy. Without meaning to, I had stolen her miracle. It occurred to me later that what I perceived as science was perceived as a miracle by her and her family. However, I was as amazed at the science as they were at the miracle. I certainly was not intending to imply that what we were seeing was any less amazing because it could be explained scientifically.

Although I was raised Catholic, I’ve struggled to figure out where I belong in terms of religion, faith, and spirituality. I know I’m not unique in this, and perhaps the term “struggled” isn’t really accurate. I just figure it’s part of the journey. It’s never really bothered me that my views about religion and life are evolving. We are all dynamic in terms of our perspectives on life, whether we are religious or not.

I’m the daughter of chemical engineer. Although chemistry isn’t my thing, I did inherit a nerdy love of the scientific method. Science–and how we can apply it to human life–fascinates me. For example, I wasn’t too committed to learning the parts of the brain when I was an undergraduate. However, as I started spending time with people who had dementia, I realized that I could translate certain behaviors to deficits in certain parts of the brain. For me, science was suddenly about people, not about cells on a slide.

I don’t like to think of miracles and science as competing theories. Something can be rooted in science but also be appreciated as a miracle. When we were in South Carolina, we walked down to the beach after dinner to see the most wondrous double rainbow over the ocean. Although I somewhat understand the science of rainbows, I did ask my good friend Siri (aka–my IPhone), “Siri, what makes a double rainbow?” Siri was able to kindly send me to a couple of websites where I learned a bit about “secondary” rainbows and why there is sometimes a larger, fainter rainbow over the primary rainbow. There is a scientific explanation of a double rainbow over the ocean. Yet, does that mean it’s not a miracle? Does that mean we should look at it with any less awe and wonder?

I can explain why music is such a valuable tool for people with dementia by showing you a picture of the brain. I can tell you why people with Alzheimer’s can sing but not talk by discussing the functions of various parts of the brain. However, I am not going to argue if you say it’s a miracle that a woman who is non-verbal is singing a hymn.

Music can have a pretty incredible impact on all of us–not just those who have dementia. A few months ago, I was in my office when Free Bird by Lynyrd Skynyrd came on my Pandora station. In high school, I spent quite a bit of time riding around town with my friends Dan and Tom in a turquiose pickup truck owned by Dan (or maybe by Dan’s parents). I am almost sure we had some interesting conversations, but I cannot be absolutely certain because I don’t remember a single one of them. I have no idea what we talked about, really. What I do remember are the songs we listened to. Or maybe I should say the song. I think we just listened to Free Bird repeatedly. Maybe once in a while we listened to Tuesday’s Gone with the Wind as well. There’s something about riding around in a pickup while listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd.

I have also found that music connects people. My favorite song to lip sync to as a kid was Islands in the Stream by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. I sang the Dolly part, obviously. Sometimes I sang the Kenny part as well, but sometimes I pretended like my current crush was singing the Kenny part. (Once in a while it was a celebrity crush like Kirk Cameron, but usually it was someone in my class at school.) There’s also a remake of Islands of the Stream by Reba McEntire and Barry Manilow. I don’t know what they were thinking. It doesn’t touch the original.

By coincidence, I recently discovered that my friend Dana has the same slight obsession with this song. When we figured this out, we instantly became kin. Music can bring people closer together. And it doesn’t hurt that we also both have puggles (a beagle/pug mix) and love wine. Lifelong friendships have been built on less.

I put the power of music (especially for those with dementia) in the same category as GPS and 3D printing. It doesn’t matter if you consider it science, a miracle, or both. It’s pretty awesome, and we need to use it to our advantage.

And if you have even a passing interest in music or dementia, do yourself a favor and watch the documentary “Alive Inside.” It’s available on Netflix.

7 thoughts on “The Miracle and/or Science of Music in Dementialand

  1. Now you’ve introduced me to the science behind my experience as a pastor when visiting a particular dementia patient. She had been nonverbal for some time, but when I got around to praying the Lord’s Prayer, she joined in, much to the amazement of her family. I now have a better understanding of that miracle. Thank you!

    I have EOAD and a deep interest in music. I am preparing a digital archive of music that triggers memories for me, everything from Dvorak’s New World Symphony to Don Meredith singing “Turn Out the Lights, The Party’s Over,” on Monday Night Football. I recommend a couple of books: Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks, and This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin.

    I have made a note to watch Alive Inside on Netflix. Thanks for the tip!

    Your blog is interesting, informative, and inspirational. Thank you!


  2. I saw this in my Mother when she had Alzheimer’s.
    She sang in church for over 40 years as well as around the house. She has such a beautiful, sweet voice.
    Her favorite songs were from Musicals such as “Sound of Music” “South Pacific” “Fiddler on the Roof.” When she heard these songs after she lost the ability to speak, she lit up. It was amazing.
    Even now, in Stage 4, I find peace and tranquility in Music. As they say, it really does soothe the soul.
    On a side note, last week, I sang at a Senior Care Facility. They wanted to hear showtunes, so we sang a few from Oklahoma, Disney and I sang Edelweiss from “Sound of Music”. Needless to say, afterwards I shed many tears of both joy and sorrow because of what music meant to my Mother.
    Thanks for posting this!!! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Brad. We meet again! Glad to hear of the good experience at the senior care facility. Sounds like it went well. I’d love to hear more about your time there.


  3. Hey, Elaine – this post is (obviously) near and dear to my heart! I’ve also seen this happen with lots of residents of nursing homes when I’ve gone (or taken students) to sing for them. I choose to believe it’s because music is so much a part of who we are, throughout our lives – somewhere between science and miracles.
    By the way, I’ve been reading a great book that you’ve probably already read: “Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande. Can’t seem to stop thinking about it…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It means so much to me to hear your comments about this! And I just read that book a couple weeks ago. A colleague also suggested “Checklist” by the same author, but I’ve yet to have time to read it.


Comments are closed.