Words and Music

The famous composer, Richard Rogers, often said that it drove him nuts when people would ask him the ubiquitous question:

“Mr. Rogers, what comes first, the music or the words?”

Richard Rogers knew (better than most) that the words and music were an organic whole, growing into and out of each other. Trying to separate the words from the music is a zero sum game; without both, there is simply not a song.

We often think of this phenomenon of words and music when we are working with people who are living with dementia; we hear the words, but do we listen to the music? For us, the music in the language of dementia is the meaning behind the words, the spirit of the individual that colors the communication. We believe that listening for the music, the meaning that lies behind the words is an essential part of our work with people who live with dementia.

Here is a story that illustrates our point:

We were working in a memory support center where we came to know Heidi, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and often repeated stories and phrases. One day we were visiting with Heidi when her son dropped by to see her. He invited us to stay with them as he visited his mother. He was a college professor and it was obvious that visiting his mother was an uncomfortable, even painful process for him.

While we were there, his mother, Heidi, told us the same story many times. It was a simple story: Heidi was a single mom who had to work two jobs to support herself and her little boy (now the professor). Many times, Heidi’s brother would call her up in the evening and say,

“Sis, get your butt over here and have some supper with us!”

This was the story that she told over and over in the space of just a few minutes. After the fourth or fifth retelling of this story, the professor turned to us and said,

“See, this is why I hate to come here and visit my mother. She tells the same stories over and over and over again.”

We knew that this could be a teachable moment for him and for us. We asked his mother a question.

“Heidi, when your brother called you up and asked you to come over and have supper, how did that make you feel?”

A large smile covered Heidi’s face and she answered,

“Oh, it made me feel wonderful! It made me feel loved! I was so tired and so lonely then.”

Heidi’s son turned to us with tears in his eyes. Then he went over to his mom and kneeling down beside her, tearfully told her,

“Mom, I am so sorry. I didn’t know. I didn’t realize that you were lonely.”

There is always a reason for the words, even if we don’t always understand the song. Working with people who are living with dementia, we have learned how important it is for us to listen for the music, the meaning behind the words.