Breaking dementia’s silence with poetry

Over the Years, a poem about ageing and Alzheimer’s, stirs a sad, sweet memory but also hope. Dementia is part of family life – and loss – for so many of us now and I remember how it silenced my once sociable father. Yet Paula Jennings’ poetry, drawing on her work in a nursing home, invites a new way of talking and listening. 

There are days and ways that are different

and you don’t know if you’re right or wrong

or round the corner.

Over the Years – a recent Poem of the Moment on the Scottish Poetry Library website – is published in a new pamphlet Under a Spell Place, inspired by experience gained from friendship and conversations with a resident with Alzheimer’s in a nursing home.  At first the resident’s words seemed incoherent, “conflating past and present”, but over time Paula Jennings found they started to make sense, “taken on their own terms”.

It strikes a chord.  Dementia dismantled my father’s way with words. He was Irish; he loved to chat, better still to argue about politics or sport, history or food – any topic that would get a good discussion going. When his memory began to fail he gradually lost the knack of casual conversation.  Unable to remember last night’s television, today’s newspaper headlines, or his beloved cricket scores, he withdrew into a small and increasingly silent world. Without short term memory there is no easy small talk and that, he discovered, is cruelly impoverishing.

Yet he could recite great chunks of Shakespeare and long lines of poetry learned by heart as a boy.  He was word perfect in all three verses of WB Yeats’ Lake Isle of Innisfree and would reach the “bee-loud glade” with tears in his eyes and a beam of achievement on his face before carrying on to the “deep heart’s core”.

The powerful pleasure of speaking poetry out loud in the company of others is part of Living Voices – a joint project between Scottish Poetry Library and Storytelling Centre – which has been taking poetry, song and storytelling into Scottish care homes for the past three years.

For Martha Pollard, Living Voices co-ordinator at the Scottish Poetry Library, it’s an inspiring project which has proved that sharing poetry and storytelling out loud can rekindle the spark of that essential enjoyment in conversation, and that it is as important for the wellbeing of carers as it is for the people they care for.  That’s why she chose Paula Jennings’ poem for her Poem of the Moment, as an example of what we can all gain from spending time and listening to people with dementia.

Paula Jennings, who lives in Fife and works freelance, runs poetry writing workshops and takes special interest in working creatively with people who have dementia, producing “unexpected and moving triumphs.”  Through foggy confusion, there are moments of wry clarity: “my mind’s gone all middling in the centre.”      

Under a Spell Place is her second pamphlet published by Happenstance. Reviewing the first From the Body of the Green Girl, Lyn Moir observed “Jennings is adept at getting into other people’s skin.”  Reading Autumn Equinox, where a young women sees in her mirror signs of the Old One coming, it seems she is also unusually comfortable in her own:

and I hand her the unmarked oval

of my face. Then she smiles

my seasons into me, so implacable

and tender that I want to keep her.

Autumn Equinox

To read Over the Years in full, visit the Scottish Poetry Library.

There is also much more about Living Voices, and the new life it can bring, on the Scottish Poetry Library website.  To quote Sally Magnusson, author of Where Memories Go: Why dementia changes everything and founder of Playlist for Life:

Poetry, story and song can all help people with dementia to access memories, words and a sense of their own identity. For many years I observed the same effect on my own mother’s dementia.  By singing old songs and familiar tunes with her, my family was able to keep bringing her back to a sense of herself. It’s something I have observed over and over in my work for the charity Playlist for Life.

   

Comments

  1. David Perman says

    What a wonderful illustration of the power of poetry, especially that learned when young. I do remember Lawrence Young’s love of poetry (and trains) and will go and read some of Paula Jennings’ poems. Thank you.

    • Fay Young says

      Thank you David, it was both touching and fun to see how Dad’s face lit up when he recited poetry – it could be mildly embarrassing when he broke into old wartime songs at the theatre, or joined in with a favourite Shakespeare monologue which he had learned by heart as a schoolboy and carried with him throughout his life.

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