The man who couldn’t rhyme

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We were going around in a circle, working together on word puzzles of sorts. First, we associated words with other words. 

“If I say, ‘dog,’ you could say…” I started.

“Cat,” one woman answered.

“Pets,” the man to her left, Earnie, called.

After a few minutes of this activity, I moved onto rhyming. Rhyming is inherently easier than associating. Rhyming is something that you learn as a very young child, so most people can do it without any difficulty at all (unless you pick a hard word.)

“So if I say ‘mat,’ you could say…” I started again.

“Bat,” one woman answered.

“Sat,” another called.

“Chair,” Earnie said.

I paused. “We’re working on rhymes, Earnie,” I smiled. “So, for example, it is supposed to sound like the word before it, so if someone says, ‘sat,’ you could say, ‘chat.’ You know what I mean?”

“Ohh! I’ve got it, yes, great,” Earnie answered, nodding. 

We went around the circle again, but when it got to Earnie, he did the same exact thing. 

“Floor,” the woman before him said.

“Ceiling,” Earnie said. 

I paused the game again. “Earnie, if I were to say, ‘floor,’ what’s a word that rhymes with that? What does it sound like? Like, ‘core,’ ‘snore,’ that kind of thing.” 

“Umm…ceiling,” he said, then nodding, happy that he’d found an answer.

I realized that something was truly wrong here. “Okay! Great, well, let’s try another game,” I smiled.

I’ve been working with people who have cognitive impairments in a hands-on way since 2011 and I’ve never seen anything like this before. If you can take a good guess at what is happening here, please write in. I don’t know if a “rhyming center” exists in the brain, but I imagine his must be very impaired.

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Rachael Wonderlin has a Master’s in Gerontology and is the author of two published books with Johns Hopkins University Press. She owns Dementia By Day, a dementia care consulting company.

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