The idea first came to poet Gary Glazner whilst working as a florist in 2003.
Delivering bouquets of flowers to a nursing home and seeing the residents’ faces light up gave him the inspiration to help those with dementia express themselves through poetry.
From an initial $300 grant, he is now founder and Executive Director of The Alzheimer’s Poetry Project which operates in 26 states and six countries.
His work is backed up by scientists who have not only demonstrated the merits of poetry for those with dementia, but that learning verses also helps to prevent it.
The experts’ recommendation? Learn a poem a day. Here’s the scoop. . .
A Much-Improved Quality of Life
“Our goal is to tap into the imagination that still lives within the person with Alzheimer’s or dementia. Regardless of the stage of the disease process, we believe we can still touch the individual’s creative side…” says Mr. Glazner, who is also Poet in Residence at the New York Memory Center.
He explains that patients become more vocal, social and alive. Various techniques and props are used to bring life to the poem and he even inspires them to create their own poetry.
Christopher Nadeau, The Memory Center’s former Executive Director, said more and more studies are coming out “showing that we can certainly improve the quality of life of individuals that are living with Alzheimer’s [through] improved levels of self-esteem, a decrease in depression levels and sustaining people in the community for longer periods of time.”
In a paper published in August, Dr. Aagje Swinnen from Maastricht University, Netherlands and gerontologist Kate de Medeiros from Miami University presented evidence to show people with dementia still want to communicate verbally even in advanced cases.
Through poetry and other spoken-word-based arts approaches, these patients can be motivated to express themselves, engage in meaningful relations, and build a sense of rapport and belonging.
Brain Benefits from Toddlers to the Elderly
In a recent interview, a distinguished neuroscientist, Professor Usha Goswami from Cambridge University, explained the value of learning poetry for everybody from babies to the elderly.
In her research she found “statistical patterns in the acoustic structure of nursery rhymes that are optimal for the brain to learn language”; optimal because of their strong metric rhythmic regularity. This type of learning in young children can be found in almost all cultures.
In her Memory Laboratory, she and her team have shown that reciting poems to babies will later enable them to communicate better verbally, and when young children learn nursery rhymes by reading them out loud, they develop an awareness of language structure which improves their reading ability.
The prof makes it quite clear that poetry is not just for children. Learning a poem by heart is good for the brains of adults, too.
Before writing was invented there were oral histories structured by the storyteller to have rhythmic patterning. This helped both the reciter to remember it and the listener to understand it.
“At whatever age you are,” according to the professor, “you still have the capacity to learn new things if you put your mind to it. There’s no shortage of brain cells as you grow older.
“You’ve got to keep the brain active. If you use your mind you won’t lose it, so if you’re learning a new poem every day, I think it’s an excellent thing to do.
“The exercise and discipline of learning a poem by heart is certainly going to keep dementia at bay.”
Poetry Gets Royal Approval
In the UK, the patron of the the Royal Society of Literature, the Duchess of Cornwall, wife of the future King, Prince Charles, is a poetry enthusiast, reciting poetry to herself as she goes to sleep.
She supports the idea of people challenging themselves by learning a poem by heart every day.
“Of course, it’s good for you,” she said, “It’s good for everyone. It helps ward off dementia and that’s wonderful.”
Professor Goswami explained that it’s easiest to learn a poem if it’s one you love, has a strong rhythm, and rhymes. It’s also vital to learn it by speaking out loud. Both hearing the words and feeling the rhythm are important to impress it on the memory.
Not sure where to start? Try Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” or, as we head into the winter season, his beautiful short poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”