Written by Jenny Smiechowski, staff writer for The Birches
People with dementia gradually lose their memory. But for many, as memories fade, creativity blossoms.
Research shows that creative abilities stay intact for people with dementia, and that creative activities can even improve their memories and moods. That’s why more and more senior living communities are using creative endeavors as a therapeutic tool for residents.
In The Birches Assisted Living’s memory care neighborhood Encore, residents can choose from a variety of creative activities, including painting, drawing, singing and flower-arranging. But the latest artistic offering in Encore is more unusual (and perhaps more challenging) for people with dementia—writing poetry.
Since writing poetry is more verbal and less visual than other creative pursuits, it’s easy to assume people with dementia wouldn’t be able to do it. People with dementia slowly lose their ability to communicate, after all. But with the right teacher and a bit of guidance, Encore residents are proving that people with dementia can not only write poems, they can write some pretty profound ones.
In fact, in August, Encore residents wrote this beautiful and touching poem about aging:
Aging our heart melts for
This is us
’til the dusk of day
Silver and white hair
This is us
Wise and wild beauties
Wondering how we got here
In this moment
This is us
Nothing to do
But make the best of it
Activities Coordinator Mary Sandoval leads Encore’s poetry group, and she’s devised her own method for helping people with dementia get in touch with their inner poet, so they can write poems like the one above.
Sandoval starts by choosing a topic. Then she selects sensory-stimulating props that she passes around to residents to evoke memories and emotions about that topic. For a recent poem about Thanksgiving, for example, she passed around a small dish of nutmeg and asked residents what feelings and memories the smell inspired.
Once the group has done some sensory brainstorming, Sandoval works with them to combine their thoughts, memories and feelings into a cinquain poem (although she’s tried other poem styles in the past too).
Cinquain poems consist of five lines that don’t rhyme. The first line is a one-word subject or topic. The second line is two adjectives that describe the topic. The third line is three verbs related to the topic. The fourth line is a four-word phrase that captures a feeling related to the topic, and the fifth line is a specific term that explains the first line or topic.
Following the cinquain structure helps Sandoval take the raw feelings and memories she gets from residents and transform them into a poem. But she doesn’t compose the poem for them. She asks for their input during the entire process. The poem goes through a few editing cycles where Sandoval reads lines aloud to residents and incorporates their suggestions or ideas about what should go where.
By following this process, Encore residents have already composed enough poems to create their own book (a small binder full of poems), and they’ve covered topics ranging from hurricanes to sunflowers. Why was it possible for Encore residents to become such prolific poets despite the cognitive impairments they deal with?
Well, according to Sandoval, it’s because poetry has less to do with communication in a traditional sense, and more to do with being creative in the present moment—something that people with dementia are good at.
“It’s all about the present moment,” said Sandoval. “Poetry anchors them in the present moment and by doing that it also triggers memories and brings them joy.”
It also helps, says Sandoval, that poetry is pure expression without boundaries. It relies on emotion more than logic, and it doesn’t have the same rules as other forms of communication. It still exercises the mind, however, which makes it the perfect way to keep someone with dementia mentally engaged, without the same frustration other activities might cause.
Writing poetry has one other noteworthy benefit for people with dementia, according to Sandoval. It gives them a voice.
People with dementia can become uncomfortable communicating, and as a result, can withdraw socially. But when they write poetry, they’re heard in a way they aren’t heard in their daily life anymore. That’s why Encore’s poetry group has become a mainstay in The Birches memory care neighborhood—and will remain so for the foreseeable future. It not only gives Encore residents an outlet for creative expression but for personal expression.
“Everybody has a voice when we write poetry” said Sandoval. “That’s the nice thing about it. There’s no right or wrong, and we all have a voice.”