How poetry is making an impact in the lives of those living with Alzheimer’s

By Jennifer Battisti

My grandmother, Mary, was an artist, a musician and a teacher at a school for the deaf and blind. Later, she was diagnosed with dementia and placed into an assisted living facility. My family and I felt powerless as we watched her grasp at memories, words, and her identity like slippery fish. I still have her last painting, a self-portrait, drawn in childlike illustration with the words “Who am I?” below it. Even dementia cannot steal art. She died in 2012, and I deeply regretted not knowing more about Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Knowing she did not have access to an outlet to connect with her art at the end of her life was saddening, as I am a poet and the thought of losing poetry in addition to losing memories is heartbreaking.

Students from The Alexander Dawson School
to the Adult Day Care center.
Five years later, I met with current Clark County Poet Laureate, Vogue Robinson, to discuss her vision to bring awareness to poetry in the community during her two-year term. It wasn’t long before we shared about our grandmothers through tearful stories of their exceptional spirits and their struggles with memory. It felt like the planets had aligned as we quickly found Poetry For Life: an intergenerational program designed to teach students to perform and create poetry with older adults; with an emphasis on patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and dementia.

In addition, students gain a better understanding of how Alzheimer’s affects people, person-centered care, and creative aging, through exposure to creative expression in older adults. Alzheimer’s has no current cure and it is not going away. The Alzheimer’s Association states that cases will rise 14% in all 50 states over the next eight years, making interaction with and education about our elders crucial. Our youth will either love someone with Alzheimer’s or they themselves will suffer from it.

After tremendous dedication from a mighty group of poets who have become certified Teaching Artists, we have completed several visits to assisted living facilities. Our first visit introduced us to a woman named Dixie. She was disconnected from the group, guarded, and disinterested in joining along with the poetry activity. She looked down at the floor and gripped her walking cane beside her. And then it happened, the miracle we’d watched in the training videos—halfway through a recitation of “Trees,” a classic poem by Joyce Kilmer. She looked up as if she had just arrived and then she sang the last line back to us: “Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.” A smile bloomed on her face and she was engaged for the remainder of our visit.

In-person training with the Poetry For Life Director, Gary Glazner, (bottom lower right) and our current Teaching Artists and supporters.
There is extensive research and science to explain and support what happened to Dixie, but it feels like pure magic. Using the technique call and response, poetry transcends degenerative memory loss and allows elders to hold a phrase in their mind long enough to participate in recitation. It is as if they finally have a way to express their feelings without a sense of helplessness.

Recently, we completed our first field trip with a group of eighth grade students from The Alexander Dawson School. After a successful day interacting with the elders, the students wrote essays about their experience. Many of the essays were emotional and spoke to the power of human connection.

Our vision for this program is to reach numerous assisted living facilities in Clark County, brightening the lives of those affected by the diseases. It will enrich the lives of older adults living with Alzheimer’s and dementia by fostering engagement with the arts through reciting and writing poetry. It will build an empathic bridge between our youth, elders and teaching artists as well as enlarging the experience and humanity of our community.

Inside the mind of each human is the entirety of their lives—all the beauty, loss, love, all the strings fastened to this earth. Alzheimer’s and dementia destroys memory and mental functions, but it does not erase the person. They are still here. Using art form as a tool, we can give them a space to play and connect to those unsterile, humanistic pieces, those pieces known by heart. In the process we are better for it, caregivers are better for it, our kids are better for it, and our community is better for it. In the face of tremendous loss, for a moment, in their grateful faces, everyone forgets statistics.

Jennifer Battisti is a local writer, poet and mother. She serves as the administrator and a participating Teaching Artist for the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project in Clark County.