How the Habit of Humming Benefits the Elderly
Awakened by the Sound of a Melodic Hum
Minutes to midnight, I awake to the sound of a melodic hum. It is coming from my mother sitting in the dark living room, unaware of the hour. I turn on the light. With one hand on her cane and the other holding a little bundle in her lap, she is as charming as any little old lady can be.
“I was going for a walk up the street,” she offered, “but I got tired and I sat down to rest.”
Dead bolts on our doors do not prevent my mind from wandering through the what ifs. Eventually, my thoughts drift back to the hum. For me, it is probably the balm that keeps my anxieties in check; but what is it for her?
Humming decreases the sense of loneliness indoors or outdoors.
Approximately two months ago, my mother began humming frequently. The sound is refreshing when she hums hymns that are familiar to me, and sometimes it is so moving that I just want to intrude by singing out the words. Not sure if I should.
My curiosity leads me to research whether there is any concern about the habit of humming in elderly people. There are a few surprises.
The Nuisance Hum
My first surprise is the complaints of family members whose relatives are suffering from Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. The habit of humming in their elderly people can be described by one or more of the following phrases:
- constant even in public places
- while eating or while in conversation
- the same tune over and over
- sometimes not a tune, just a monotone buzz
Relatives and caregivers label these hums “little annoying,” “a nuisance,” and “driving us all crazy.” Any sound can be annoying to individuals who prefer silence; but hopefully after considering the reasons for the hum, individuals dealing with the elderly and the demented will be more caring, unselfish and tolerant.
Besides, the experts explain that unlike what humming does to the annoyed, the effect is entirely different to those who have the habit:
"Humming calms the nervous system and activates the parasympathetic nervous system."1
"It can be extremely effective as a 'self-soothing mechanism' because the individual may be able to rely on [himself or] herself instead of seeking gratification from others."2
The Camouflage Hum
Imagine sitting alone in the darkness, not understanding why. The cocktail of emotions including loneliness, powerlessness and confusion is difficult to express. Faith and hope are distant but not absent, for they bring to mind a phrase from a hymn of comfort. No memory of the first line but the melody plays and the tune is enough for the moment. The hum kicks in and camouflages all the inner chaos.
Probably, this is what humming does for my mother. When there are different mixes of emotions and the situation is strange and puzzling, the hum covers up the confusion. Perhaps also, her new habit of humming does not annoy me, because it is so much more pleasant than her old habit of speaking accusations (which is characteristic of Alzheimer's).
"Humming and singing with Alzheimer's is . . . very common and seems to provide comfort to the individual."3
"Humming . . . reduces the number of thoughts that fill your head. When you are humming there is no room for over thinking."4
Humming accommodates smiling for an even greater camouflage.
The Good Mood Hum
The elderly, especially when they lose their recent memory, regress to the memories of earlier years. This seemed to be the situation in which a daughter sought help to escape her mother’s constant humming of a childhood song. The elderly woman might have been remembering happier times and reliving her happiness through her hum.
On the other hand, it is not unusual for the individual in the shower, or listening to a song on the radio to engage in a quiet hum. Sometimes, it is not about forgetting the words; it is just that humming nurtures the good feeling. The elderly who hum may be just maintaining the good mood feeling which replaces the confusion and the fear brought on by their illnesses.
"Humming a childhood song can be a means of reminiscing on happier times."5
"There is no scientific reason that makes people want to hum when they’re in a good mood. It just happens."6
How These Facts Affect Us
I almost mentioned "the rest us" forgetting that I belong to the group of elderly people we're reading about. I’m sure that some of my readers do too. We may soon begin our constant humming, but while we still have some control, we do well to engage in humming intentionally.
The research shows that:
"Humming is naturally calming and refreshing for the mind.
Humming can greatly increase oxygenation and blood flow not just in the sinus cavities by also in the brain and elsewhere in the body."7
One year after I first published this article, my mother is still humming, even at this moment. Her humming affects me positively. While she hums, there is no need to force a conversation, to try entertaining her or making her comfortable. She is relaxed and content with whatever thoughts the tune brings. The hum is a pacifier for her and an exhaling moment for me.
By the way, briefly humming along with the elderly to a tune we recognize may open an opportunity for talking about the song, the memories, and the feelings. Exercise good judgment on when to intrude. Be kind and start the conversation with a complimentary remark about the humming.
1, 4. Fogarty, Carole: Rejuvenation Lounge, The 12 Instant Benefits of Humming Daily, (August 6, 2009).
2, 5. Health Central: AFA Social Services, Health Guide, Alzheimer's Disease (January 5, 2009).
3. Bergman, Helene: Caring.com, Is constant humming or singing common with Alzheimer's? (November 28, 2014).
6. Andrews, Linda Wasmer: Minding the Body, Hum a Happy Tune for Wellness (November 21, 2011).
7. Maya: Sing and Hum Bumble Bee, Humming for Health, (Copyright 2007-2011)
How often do you hum?
© 2014 Dora Isaac Weithers