Talking Oral History, Memory and Dementia with The Alzheimer’s Poetry Project

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11/04/2010 1:29 PM |


Next Wednesday night, Park Slope’s Community Bookstore hosts a reading by The Alzheimer’s Poetry Project, which here in New York works with groups of affected seniors to create poems in English, Hebrew, Spanish and Yiddish. The reading, which will feature poems and reflections from several group leaders, is in conjunction with the release of Nútreme Hoy (Nurture me Today), a new anthology in Spanish. I emailed a few questions to the program’s founder, Gary Glazner.

What, exactly, does the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project do?

The APP performs and creates poetry with people living with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia. We work mainly in assisted living and adult day care centers and have done programming in 20 states and internationally in Germany. We have trained over 3,000 healthcare workers and family member in how to use poetry to connect with their clients and loved ones.

To perform the poems we use a “call and response” technique where the session leader recites a line of poetry and has the group echo the line back. This works really well with people in all stages of dementia, but is especially effective when working with people in late stage whose language skills might be reduced. This connection to the oral tradition of poetry goes back to how poetry was used before written language. I am thinking especially of how someone like Homer kept the history of the Greeks in epic poetry or you might say in chunks of rhymed, rhythmic information.

To create a group poem we choose a classic poem as the model and then ask an open-ended questions around the subject matter of the poem. For example, with “Daffodils” by Wordsworth, which celebrates spring, we might ask what spring smells like, tastes like, sounds like, looks like and feels like. The group’s answers become the lines of the poem.

We then perform the newly created poem with the group. If people’s language skills are reduced to the point where they have trouble answering, or the dementia has progressed to the point were they are not able to hold the question in their mind long enough to formulate an answer, we often take their hand and recite a section of the model poem with them and in this way they are able to participate and be successful in the workshop. This is important as it allows us to work with people in very late-stage dementia.

There’s a really moving, thoughtful description of an Alzheimer’s writing workshop in Don DeLillo’s Falling Man (“the handwriting that might melt into runoff”), and the recent Korean film Poetry similarly focused on an increasingly senile woman trying to reconcile her life through a poetry workshop. Both works make me think a lot about writing’s connection to memory, cognition and mortality. Is the project’s goal, or was the project’s inspiration, fostering a kind of continuity through poetry?

The goal is primarily an issue of quality of life. We also challenge ourselves to push what we believe it is possible for people with memory loss to create. For me as a poet it is an amazing place to be, to be able to work with people at the end of their lives and to be able to work with healthcare workers and family members. There is a subtext to the project to make poetry useful to one’s community. I think of poetry’s connection to memory, as evidenced by the Greeks’ use of poetry and today, with the African tradition of the Griot as community historian and of course in hip-hop’s use of rhyme and rhythm in telling the stories of their community.

How has the project’s roster of poets and others come together?

We do outreach to like-minded literary groups and poets and offer training in using poetry with people with memory loss and in how to write grants and fundraise.

Has it always been a multilingual project, or did it become so?

The project started in Santa Fe, New Mexico so it was a natural to expand into Spanish-language programming. As people shift into late-stage dementia, even if they are bi-lingual they often revert back to their native language, so making the project multilingual helps us better serve them.

I imagine it must be a demanding project, logistically and emotionally.

No matter how down I am or drained by the financial reality of living in New York after a poetry session I am always high. I really do get more out of it than the participants. It is a wonderful experience to see someone with dementia smiling and laughing from poetry.

Do you have a poem from the most recent anthology you’d be willing to share with us?

Here is a poem created by the poetry group at the Latino Geratric Center in Milwaukee from our new Spanish anthology. We performed this dicho using “call and response” with the group, then asked them to describe their first kiss.

Pan es pan, queso es queso
no hay amor si no hay un beso.
Bread is bread, cheese is cheese,
there is no love without a kiss.


When I was a child,
I would ask my parents for bread and cheese.
They could not give it to me.
But they could give me love.

My first boyfriend, we only held hands.

Love is greater than bread and cheese.
When I went to the store,
there was no bread or cheese.
But I found a girl to kiss.
I would wait down by the river,
my girlfriend would come to get water for her family,
then we would kiss.

I told him, you can kiss me here.
(she points to her cheek.)
You can kiss me here.
(she points to her lips.)
But you don’t kiss me below here.
(She draws a line across her neck.)

When you are a teenager
At 14, 15, or 16 you dream a lot
But at 18 you already know
to say yes or no,
then you can eat your dessert.