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How poetry can help people live well with dementia

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Throughout this past academic year, I have had the opportunity of visiting an East Midlands care home alongside another student as part of the Reading Aloud placement scheme, which involved reading poetry to residents there who are living with dementia. Initially, we got through the poems we had selected very quickly: while the audience listened politely, they often did not outwardly respond to the poems or actively engage with conversations we made following each one. However, that’s not to say the reading wasn’t having any effect, or wasn’t being enjoyed; over the following sessions, the residents became more relaxed in our presence, more talkative, and visibly happy when we started to read a poem they recognised.     

Beyond the poetry, I got the impression it was also really refreshing for people to just talk to us – for some, we may have been the only younger people they saw week in, week out, and as such the chance to share their experiences and stories was really interesting for both generations. I observed how eager some residents were to tell us about their jobs and their families, holidays they’d had and how they’d met their spouses, because recounting these memories clearly made them happy. I had conversations about the Scottish Highlands, A's career as a teacher and how B was locally born and bred.  

The most moving transformation we saw was in a resident whom I'll call Alice, who spent most of the time we were there walking around. We always asked her if she wanted to sit down and listen to some poetry, and although she refused, there was nevertheless a sense that she wanted to be involved somehow as she kept hovering on the edge of our group. Then, during our last session, she finally agreed to listen and sat right next to us. As we started a Wordsworth poem, she began to recite it along with us word for word, getting visibly more excited. For months, she’d been adamant that she didn’t know any poetry, so for her to put herself outside her comfort zone and join in – reminding her that she actually knew some very well – made her (and us) very proud.   

Other popular poems were the ones people remembered from their childhood: B's favourite ‘If’, by Rudyard Kipling, which we always started with; John Masefield’s ‘Sea Fever’, which one listener said had a lovely ‘swishy’ rhythm to it; and Edward Lear’s ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’, which I chose because I vividly remember my Grandad reading it to me as a child. These residents are of the generation who learned poetry by rote at school, and it became clear over the course of the placement that many took great pleasure in the reading aloud group – it gave them an opportunity to just relax, listen, and experience whatever feelings or memories the poems brought up.

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