Some years ago, when my mother was still alive and living in a dementia-level rest home, I sat in a meeting for residents’ family members. The discussion turned to activities. One woman said her mother loved poetry, and asked whether poetry could be included in the activities offered. Someone else endorsed the comment and I thought that it would be something that my poetry-loving mother would enjoy. Nothing happened, but later, after my mother’s death, I decided it was an idea worth pursuing.
I was aware that reading, including poetry, is used in some rest homes and day programmes for older people, but I wanted to go beyond reading, discussion and reminiscence. I looked to Gary Glazner’s Alzheimer’s Poetry Project in the USA, and John Killick’s UK dementia poetry programme, In the Pink, for inspiration and guidance. Both projects combined the sharing of poems (especially well-known poems) with the creation of new poems.
I started a pilot project with a Homeshare group (a day programme run by Presbyterian Support’s Enliven service) and have since worked with other Homeshare groups and also with a day programme run by Hornby Day Care Trust.
Some participants struggle with memory loss, but many do not. The issue is often raised in the first session. “Oh, our memories aren’t too good,” they’ll tell me, but they soon relax when they realise that they can participate with no pressure to remember specific information. Although the models I looked to are based on work with people with dementia, my experience indicates that this type of poetry project is effective for older people in general.
With each group I run a series of sessions. Each session begins with shared reading of selected poems on a similar theme. I use a combination of well-known and not quite so well-known poems, some old poems and some more recent poems. Most of the poems have a strong beat or rhythm and many use repetition or refrains. Participants chime in with the refrains or with verses they know from some of the old classics. The reading is followed by conversations that lead to creating new poems.
The conversations are based on open questions that are broad enough for people to respond however they choose. The responses frequently draw on childhood or more recent memories, but just as common are opinions, reflections, descriptions, or likes and dislikes.
During the conversation I take notes to capture the words of participants as closely as possible. After the session I put together a poem or group of poems using their words.
A dog would die for you, but a cat
just sticks its tail in the air
and walks away.
They seem to know things
and appear when they hear
noises from the kitchen.
They regard humans as poor providers;
that’s why they bring in rats and mice.
A cat chooses you. Ours came from a paddock
at the end of Woodville Street.
It has a long tail with different coloured circles –
grey and red and brown.
You do go for looks with cats.
Ours is ginger. Very pretty.
Cats purr like traction engines.
They like to be patted; they’re very relaxing
and calm you. You pick them up
and they snuggle up and gaze at you.
I dunno—I just love them.
I don’t add or change words, but I do select and arrange the material, making sure that the final result includes something from each participant. The resulting poems are broad-ranging, touching, insightful and often witty. Because everyone has their own way of expressing themselves, the poems often give a real sense of the individuals. The best part of the process is taking these poems back to the group at the next session.
The main thing
was what I felt
about what I produced.
was in how well I could produce a product.
You strive for perfection–
It’s rarely achieved.
Informal feedback from participants highlights the benefits of these sessions. The most frequent comment I hear are variations of “It gets the mind moving”. I feel that we underestimate the intellectual capacity of older people and their appetite for meaningful and mentally stimulating activities.
Another frequent comment, and one that surprised me initially, is that the sessions help participants get to know each other better. “Everyone stops and listens,” one person said. Another commented on the importance of good conversation as a part of ageing. In another group, participants were delighted to be able to talk about their interests, because they felt that usually no one wanted to hear their stories or listen to them talk. I see the creation of poems using the words of participants as a powerful way of validating experience and feelings and giving a voice to older people.
Autumn is an appreciation
Autumn is a time of reward.
You look back
over spring and summer work–
a wonderful cycle.
Janet Wainscott lives in Lincoln, near Christchurch. She writes creative nonfiction and poetry. Her poetry has been published in New Zealand in Takahe, Bravado and The Press and also in Shot Glass Journal (US). Her website is janetwainscott.com