Sparking memories, and tears, with poetry

April was National Poetry Month and you’ve probably read about poetry in this space before. Poetry enlightens, inspires, challenges…and also provides a way for people living with Alzheimer’s to reconnect with their memories. The arts – painting, crafts, music, dance – have long been used to awaken the minds of those living with memory loss. So it’s no surprise to me that well-loved poetry can do the same.

During National Poetry Month last year, I met Gary Glazner in Washington, D.C. Glazner is the founder and executive director of the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project, and when I heard him speak, I was moved to tears. My own father lived with Alzheimer’s and he passed away in 2001. Charming to the last, my dad continued to enjoy games and music with us, and it was clear that he could remember beloved lines and melodies. As his language ability diminished, Dad was able to share himself with his touch and his expressions. We miss him.

There are few poems that I personally can recite fully from memory, but there are many that would come back to me with some prompting. Some lines and stanzas, of course, stay with me, such as this from Robert Frost: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— / I took the road less traveled by / and that has made all the difference.” I even remember some Shakespeare from a memorized recitation in junior high school: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / but in ourselves that we are underlings.” With some help, I could remember the rest.

That’s why I’m excited about the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project. This program facilitates the creativity of people living with Alzheimer’s and related dementia. Using a call-and-response technique, session leaders engage participants in the enjoyment of poetry, as well as the creation of new poetry as a group collaboration.

In the 10 years since the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project was founded in neighboring New Mexico, Glazner and his associates have held sessions at facilities across the U.S. – including here in the Denver area – as well as internationally. The Project also trains local facility staff to keep the program going for residents.

I corresponded with Gary Glazner recently, and we talked about his audience: people, predominantly seniors, in various stages of memory loss. Facilitators seek to bond these people as a group built on shared words, passions, and discoveries. The session leader recites lines of classic poems and the participants echo the words. Even those who have lost their language abilities often respond to the rhythm of the poetry.

These well-loved poems then serve as inspiration for the communal creation of an original poem by the group. The Project quotes the Northwest Arkansas Times: “…somber expressions became animated. Hands clapped. Feet stomped. Eyes shone with humor, recognition, and later in the hour, tears.”

It is with tears again in my own eyes that I write this. I wish – oh, how I wish! – that I had shared poetry with my dad in this way. He would have loved it. And I know right where I would I have started for the father who would watch multiple sports games on stacked TVs: with the Mudville nine, and Casey at the bat.

Andrea Doray is a writer who often quotes Frost with this, as well: “And miles to go before I sleep.” Contact her at a.doray@andreadoray.com.

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