Sparking Memories: The Alzheimer’s Poetry Project Anthology
The Alzheimer’s Poetry Project is a simple idea: to read classic poems to the patients that they might have learned as children. This activity helps to stimulate memories and provides enjoyment for the patients. Reading poems can help to reduce stress in both caregivers and loved ones1. This book provides family members with a starting place for this fun activity. Poets can use this book to start an APP in their communities. Professional health care workers can use the book to supplement the activities offered at their facilities.
In 1997, I received a small grant from Poets and Writers magazine to give a series of workshops at a senior drop-in center in Northern California. One fellow in the class had his head down not able to participate. I was reciting the Longfellow poem “The Arrow and the Song.” When I said the line, “I shot an arrow in the air,” he looked up and said “where it lands I know not where.” For that moment he was able to reach back to some part of his psyche that was not damaged by the disease. It was one of many wonderful moments we experienced during the workshop and showed me the power of reading those classic poems—I was hooked.
In December of 2003, I put together a simple proposal for the APP for the non-profit New Mexico Literary Arts to start a similar program in Santa Fe, at Sierra Vista Assisted Living Center. It turned out that one of the board member’s father was afflicted with the disease. In fact, almost everyone I talk to about this project has some personal connection to the disease. They voted to fund the seed money to start the project.
Whenever I am talking about the APP one question always comes up: “Do you know someone with Alzheimer’s?” I do not, however I do have a personal connection to using these poems with a loved one. When I first began this project in 1997 my mother was in the last stages of terminal cancer. Through a combination of the drugs she was given to relieve the pain and the progression of the cancer she had grown unable to think and communicate clearly.
One day my father called to ask me to come over as my mother was having a particularly hard time. On arriving, I found her quite agitated. I had with me some of the poems from the Alzheimer’s program. I began to read to her and soon she was calm. Then my father Billy and I began to recite a poem that they had learned as children. My mother quite gently began to say the poem along with us, even laughing as she joined in:
Oh, where have you been Billy boy, Billy boy,
Oh, where have you been, charming Billy?
I have been to seek a wife, she’s the joy of my young life,
She’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother.
Can she make a cherry pie, Billy boy, Billy boy,
Can she make a cherry pie, charming Billy?
She can make a cherry pie, quick’s a cat can wink her eye,
She’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother.
It was one of her last moments of real clarity and a moment of playfulness that quite powerfully brought home to me how these poems could be of use to people.
Perhaps this won’t come as a surprise to those of you who are caregivers, but the Alzheimer’s patients I work with at Sierra Vista are surprisingly funny. One of the men was an army Sargent for 30 years, when I read a poem he doesn’t like, such as a rap version of “The Raven,” he gives me the thumbs down, when he approves he gives me a thumbs up. When I read a sad poem he plays an imaginary “air” violin. Whenever I bring in flowers there is a woman in the group who puts them in her teeth and does a kind of flamenco happy dance. The first session at Sierra Vista I brought in an ice chest full of snow. I let them feel the snow and many wanted to taste it. I made snow balls and they began to throw them at me. As I caught and dodged the snowballs it struck me that working with this group was going to be rewarding in ways I had not expected.
Along with the humor you can experience in working with Alzheimer’s patients working with them can also break your heart. One of the best things about the APP is that it allows you to work with the patients at the level they are able to function. In the group at Sierra Vista one of the women is able to say the word “Macaroni,” with me when I recite “Yankee Doodle.” She mouths other sections along with me, much as someone singing along with the radio does and I feel like she is recognizing parts of poems. When she says “Macaroni,” there is warmth in her voice that reinforces her personality and drives home how much is lost. There is a searching quality to the way the patients look at you that is similar to a baby’s gaze learning about the world—then the patients look away or more accurately they fade into a place where you can’t reach them.
The main goal of the program is to increase the quality of life for the Alzheimer’s patients and caregivers. The immediate goal of the program is to help as many people as possible to begin reading poetry to people afflicted with Alzheimer’s Disease.
Who is this Book For?
The intended audience for the APP is Alzheimer’s patients, health care professionals, caregivers and poets. I am happy to give informational talks to community groups and health care professionals. Feedback on needs of the community has been and will continue to be solicited, analyzed and used to tailor the program to the community. At all stages of the program input from health care professionals has been sought out and utilized. If you are a health care professional and would like more information on the APP or to give feedback on your experience working with Alzheimer’s patients please contact me at the address listed below.
The major challenge the community faces is increased numbers of the population advancing into the category of older adults. This increase will include an increase in the members of the population diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and other related dementia.
How to Use This Book
The poems in the book are grouped to give two 30 minute reading sessions. I have found in my readings at Sierra Vista Living Center that alternating between rhythmic, high energy poems, sweet love or poignant poems and funny poems gives the reading a good flow and structure. This book has poems that the patients might have learned as children including some that we more commonly think of as nursery rhymes. You might want to supplement this reading with your favorite poets and more contemporary poems.
Another strategy I follow in the readings is to cluster small groups of poems around a subject. I bring in some material for the residents to hold, smell and touch. Some examples are Spring poems and daffodils; Christmas or winter poems and snow; seashells and ocean or water poems; baseball poems and tossing around Nerf balls; leaves and tree poems. I recite the poems and pass around the material. Any material that the group can feel and that might help start discussions; what gardens they had; who played sports; how snow feels; how pretty the flowers are.
Another tack suggested by Ruth Dennis is to work with the patient’s history. In the group at Sierra Vista a couple of the women have an Irish background so we experiment with Irish poems. One fellow was a coal miner and relates to poems about that and to West Virginia in general. Several in the group are religious and some of the Psalms are quite beautiful and we have included Psalm 23 to close the book. The idea is to choose poems that connect to the person’s life.
A Few Thoughts on Reading and Reciting Poetry in Public
Holding people’s attention with poetry is always challenging, perhaps even more so when your audience is afflicted with dementia. I like to have at least a few poems memorized so I can walk around freely and recite the poems. In performance poetry lingo this is called, “working the room.” With the Alzheimer’s patients I come close to them and reach out my hand to them, shaking, holding their hands or just touching them if they show interest in interacting with me.
Often at poetry readings someone will read in what is called the “poetry voice.” It is a monotone, with slight lilt, each line ending in a questioning up turn. Although, there is nothing wrong in principle in sounding that way, the problem comes when the person reads poem after poem with exactly the same sound. Imagine going to hear a band and every song sounded the same, or a play where the actors performed every scene with the same intensity and voice. We wouldn’t stand for it, yet many poets think it is perfectly fine to read all their poems, no matter the subject, exactly the same.
Try projecting some of the poems like a street corner seller from Elizabethan England, say a fish monger. How about sounding like a hotdog vendor from a baseball game? Think of how an auctioneer sounds or a flight attendant. How would a lover read a poem before a fireplace in full woo mode? Try on different regional accents. There is such a richness of voice in a New England fisherman’s voice, a Southern Bell’s mint julep, or a Texas rodeo twang. The idea is to be playful in your reading; to use a variety of volumes and intensity; to listen to all the wonderful voices around you and bring them into your reading. You don’t have to be a perfect mimic, just be aware of all the possible sounds the human voice can make, from a conspiratorial whisper to a parachutist’s falling shout of joy; from cooing baby; to a football coach’s gaming winning rage. Put a little passion in your voice.
If you have a few of the poems memorized you can clap along with a particularly rhythmic poem. I clap out the rhythm to Blake’s “Tyger.” You can more easily look up and make eye contact with your audience. You can move around the room and recite a section to each person. I jump up out of my chair and recite, “Tyger, tyger, burning bright. In the forest of the night,” to each member of the group as I circle around the room. Most of all I try to have fun with each poem.
All the profits from the sale of this anthology go directly to the APP programming. When you purchase this book you are contributing directly to poems being read to patients at assisted living centers.
Please contact me at the address listed below to let me know how the book has worked for you. Feel free to offer feedback and suggestions.
Founder and Executive Director, Alzheimer’s Poetry Project
290 20th Street, #1L
Brooklyn, NY 11215
- See the study entitled Speech Therapy with Poetry on Heart Rate Rhythmicity. “Our findings suggest that the stress-releasing effect of guided recitation of old poetry can lead to a deep relaxation afterwards, This effect could be beneficial not only in stress management but also for the prevention of heart disease and other illnesses related to irregular breathing.”