The thought of elders with dementia drafting poems may be difficult to imagine. However, for one woman who lost both of her parents to Alzheimer's disease, turning dementia patients into poets has become her passion.
"When caring for my parents, I was like so many caretakers who are focused on whether their loved one is taking their medicine correctly, eating properly, staying clean and kept safe, but it never occurred to me at the time about what I could have been doing for them that was stimulating, intellectual, creative, and allowed them to feel good about themselves," says Molly Middleton Meyer.
While attending graduate school for creative writing, Meyer's mother passed away.
"People would ask what I was going to do with my master's degree, and the truth is I wasn't sure, but I knew I wanted to give back something that I couldn't give my parents," she says. "I kept envisioning all the faces in memory care who I had come across while visiting my mother, and so many seemed stagnant."
Meyer began researching art therapy as it relates to people with dementia. So began the makings of Mind's Eye Poetry.
"I knew music was able to trigger memory and calm people, but I thought it wasn't very intellectually stimulating. I wanted to give those with memory loss the ability to contribute, not just put headphones on and sink into themselves, but actually communicate with their fellow memory care residents, as well as possibly learn something," she says.
Mind's Eye Poetry's mission is to engage elders in the writing process through guided hour-long sessions led by Meyer. She held her first poetry writing session in 2013 at an assisted living community in Dallas, Texas. Years later, she's helped hundreds of people with dementia living in assisted living communities and nursing homes write more than 800 poems collectively.
A Typical Session
The poetry sessions are a unique break from the typical day in assisted living communities. Meyer begins by asking participants to think about a particular topic. "I may say, 'Let's talk about the ocean', and see where it goes," she says. "They're so used to being talked to about routine mundane things like eating and changing that it's out of the ordinary for them to have someone ask them to think about other things. Even the word 'ocean' will light up their faces and get the wheels turning."
Meyer brings a bag of props, too. For instance, she may pull out a scarf and ask the elders to share how it relates to the ocean. "Someone may say 'wind' and then I'll ask, 'How does the wind feel by the ocean?' All the sudden we're into a sensory realm. I'll get answers like 'it smells like ice cream on the beach' or 'I can hear children laughing,'" she says.
Part of the program includes reading poems related to the topic aloud.
"It's scientifically proven that when people listen to poetry their brain reacts in a different way than if they just listen to someone talk, so I like them to hear the symbolism and metaphors, and even if they don’t really understand it all, their brains are hearing different language than they normally do day to day," she says.
Meyer asks participants a variety of open-ended questions. From their responses, she creates short poems that she reads back to them.
"This is when the whole empowerment piece comes into play, which is one of the greatest gifts that I've given to people. When I read the poems back to them that they helped contribute to there are physical indications that they're feeling empowered. They sit up straighter, lean in, talk to each other," she says.
Each group creates three or more poems, depending on the stage of their dementia. Afterwards, Meyer types out their work and sends it to the communities. "The poems have a life that goes beyond the session. I've seen some places make scrap books or frame them so the elders can share them with family."
Meyer says that while the finished poems are phenomenal, the process is just as rewarding.
"It's really about getting people to relate, think and be empowered, as well as add joy to their day," she says.
Get Poetic with Your Loved One
If your loved one’s assisted living facility doesn't offer this type of program or they still live on their own or with you, Meyer says you can help them get the creative juices flowing.
"You don't have to be a poet. You just have to ask open-ended questions and care about elevating a conversation," she says.
After asking the typical questions about taking medication, eating and sleeping, Meyer suggests asking more engaging question like "What's your favorite flower?"
"Maybe your parent says, 'A yellow rose.' Then you can ask, 'Why yellow?' All the sudden you have something to write down," she says.
Another way to engage your loved one is to show them items from their home such as a quilt, picture, or piece of art. "Have them look at it, touch it and smell it, and ask what they think about when they do so, then start writing and read it back to them," she says.
While this may be a change of a mindset for you, Meyer says, "try to get off the caregiver road and just be with your parent."
If your loved one doesn't want to participate, Meyer suggests telling them you want to hear more about them and how they feel, or try again another time.
"It's okay if you only get a few lines the first time," says Meyer. "The point is that you're allowing them to engage in a way that gets them away from the day to day of living with dementia."