by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.
A concerned daughter wrote:
My mother is hearing a repetitive song and I would like to know what I can do for her. She is 99 years old, very hard of hearing, and because she does not hear people, has withdrawn and spends a lot of time alone. Even though I have told her that it is all in her head, she still keeps referring to the lady next door playing her music.
Being elderly, having a hearing loss, withdrawing, and being alone in a quiet environment are all factors that predispose people to hearing phantom music. The name for this condition is Musical Ear Syndrome (MES).
You can’t do anything about your mother’s age, but you can help her with the other factors. For example, she needs to enrich her environment with real sounds. She can do this by getting and wearing hearing aids, or by using various assistive listening devices that let her hear people talking to her. The more she stimulates her brain with real sound, the less time her brain will have to play the phantom sounds.
Getting her involved with people again—probably only one at a time since it is difficult to understand people in groups when you have a severe hearing loss—will give her something to focus on besides her phantom music.
When a person withdraws, they generally feel depressed and that often means they also focus on things going wrong with their bodies such as the phantom music your mom is hearing. The best way to treat this depression is to become involved in life again.
Incidentally, I have found that it is very hard to get people over the age of 85 or so to understand that the music they are hearing is phantom. They can’t seem to get it through their heads that this music is not real, so that approach may be a losing battle. Also, they may refuse to accept that what they are hearing is phantom because to them, hearing phantom sounds equates with being crazy, and no one wants to admit to that. Thus they continue to blame the music on others (neighbors).
Furthermore, since the phantom music seems to have directionality—coming from the lady next door—it is even more difficult to convince an elderly person that this music is not real, but phantom.
The trick is to get your mother’s mind focused on other things (and thus off her phantom music) by having her become involved in various activities again. When people do this, their phantom music often fades into the background to some degree.
Unfortunately, her phantom music may come back at night when her mind isn’t focused on anything. If her hearing loss isn’t too great, she could listen to real music on a bedside radio to mask the phantom music while she falls asleep, but if her loss is too severe (like mine is), this won’t work as the volume required would wake the whole neighborhood—and they’ll be upset at hearing real music in the wee hours!
If you want to learn more about Musical Ear Syndrome and some of the things you can do to help bring it under control, see the book, “Phantom Voices, Ethereal Music & Other Spooky Sounds“.