Why Does My Mom Hum in Dementialand?

So why does your mom hum? Your mom hums because she may not be able to find the words to express herself. She may feel a frustrating inability to control the world around her. Yet her brain can still identify and express rhythm.

This morning I present to you the second in my series of an as-of-yet undetermined number of Q & As. Today’s question is to the point:

Why does my mom hum?

I’m not much of a musician. In fact, I lipsynced my way through middle school chorus because when I actually sang on the first day the director said, “Someone over there in the front sounds really off.” After deducing that someone was me, I became skilled at looking like I was singing when I actually was not. I was so skilled that the next year I won third place in a lipsync contest at a school fundraiser. If I remember correctly, I got a gift certificate to Pizza Hut.

When I was in high school, I joined in singing the national anthem at an event. Apparently I was so bad that someone thought I was mocking America and being disrespectful to the flag. Now I stand proudly with my hand across my heart–and my lips tightly shut. It’s my gift to America.

That being said, I love music. It’s just that I’m more of a connoisseur than a performer. The perfect song at the perfect time can change my day for the better. I’ve spent hours creating the ideal playlist for a party to give it the right “vibe.” And sometimes a song comes on my Pandora playlist that reminds me a of a moment twenty years ago that makes me smile. Music can be a powerful ally in changing your mood.

My work with those who have dementia has only reinforced my belief in the power of music. While the impact of music might seem like magic, it’s based in science. You see, rhythm comes from a part of the brain that isn’t generally affected by dementia until late in the disease process. When language is gone…when logical reasoning is gone…when motor control is gone…when memory is gone…song and prayer often remain present because they are based in rhythm. If you’re interested in seeing the impact of music on those with dementia, do yourself a favor and watch the documentary, Alive Inside.

Call it a miracle or a scientific fact. Either way, it’s a gift in the midst of what can be a cruel disease process. Dementia can be pretty stingy with presents. When you get one, accept it.

So why does your mom hum? Your mom hums because she may not be able to find the words to express herself. She may feel a frustrating inability to control the world around her. Yet her brain can still identify and express rhythm.

It’s what she’s got left.

We want to focus on what people who have dementia have left rather than what they have lost. If your mom’s got rhythm (which is common), use it. Make music a part of her everyday life. If you want her to walk, turn on a tune and make it feel like a dance. Rhythm might be your connection to her after other connections have failed. Use it.

If you’re unsure how to use music as a tool for those with dementia, check out this video by occupational therapist, Teepa Snow:


And while you’re at it, check out some of the other videos on the site.

P.S. I’ve written about music and dementia at length before. If you’re interested, check it out: 




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.