Dad lined up his phone, pencils, notepad, Rolodex, and tissue box on a side table in his room at the nursing home. As if checking inventory, he straightened each item, one after another, working his way down the line before running through them again. As words and ideas kept slipping away, he tried to lash his mind to familiar, everyday items, naming and touching them to stay connected with the present.
A few days later, a series of medical issues landed him in another facility; dementia seemed to be accelerating, leaving him confused and agitated. Dad didn’t have his lineup of familiar items at the new place, but he reviewed old memories with my brother and repeated several phrases, including lines of poetry from Shakespeare and Dylan Thomas. Though his mind couldn’t access certain names, numbers, or dates, he could still recount 80-year-old memories and recite poetry memorized in his youth.
Molly Middleton Meyer, founder of Mind’s Eye Poetry, works with people like my dad—including patients who have experienced far greater memory loss—using poetry to awaken memories and tap into their imagination.
Meyer lost both of her parents to Alzheimer’s. As their disease progressed, she grew frustrated witnessing the activities typically provided at care facilities. Hoping to offer a more lively and respectful alternative, Meyer drew from her own background as a poet and writer to develop a method of poetry facilitation that connects with patients and engages their minds and memories to create poems on the spot.
For about an hour, she meets with these patients and invites conversation, using sensory materials, recitation, and open-ended questions. The resulting stories and snippets are used to compose three to six poems.
Meyer reports that some residents who come to her sessions haven’t spoken in days or even weeks. “During the facilitation, it is not uncommon for them to suddenly ‘wake up’ and begin adding relevant words, phrases, and even complete memories to the conversation. When I see the astounded expression on the faces of the regular caregivers, I know something remarkable has happened.”
She writes, “People with dementia still possess the ability to laugh, think, create, and authentically enjoy living in the moment. They deserve challenging, empowering, dignifying interactions.”
My dad struggles to recall the name of his primary care physician or the day’s date, but he can still recite lines from Robert Southey’s The Battle of Blenheim and describe the small town Fourth of July parade he watched as a little boy, where he waved at the two or three remaining Civil War Veterans who marched past in uniform. It’s still in there. The poetry, the memories, the images. He can see them with his mind’s eye.
Dancing Colors, After Chihuly
In the glass forest,
the dancing branches
of the flaming tree
twist and curl.
I see crackling
spikes of fire.
I see the forest’s
I see the forest’s
spikes of fire.
I see crackling.
Twist and curl,
of the flaming tree.
The dancing branches,
in the glass forest.
— Mitsu, Allean, Randy, Glen, Katherine, Pat, Rosemary, Hazel, Mary Lou, Mimi, Elsie, Wayne, Susan, Mary Jane, and Doris
Arbor House, Lewisville, TX
© Mind’s Eye Poetry, 2014, used with permission.
Photo by Broo_am (Andy B), Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Ann Kroeker, writing coach and co-author of On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life that Lasts.
How to Write a Poem uses images like the buzz, the switch, the wave—from the Billy Collins poem “Introduction to Poetry”—to guide writers into new ways of writing poems. Excellent teaching tool. Anthology and prompts included.
“How to Write a Poem is a classroom must-have.”
—Callie Feyen, English Teacher, Maryland