It is the first visit and they sit staring at me. I am here to read poetry.
I have read the research and poetry has been proven to stimulate pathways in the brain, enhance communication and wellbeing. Elderly people with mild or even severe dementia benefit from such input.
First of all, let me say I don’t know what I am doing! I am not trained to deal with dementia. I have heard vaguely about Reminiscence Therapy but I am not a counsellor and, at 71, I do not want to undertake the long training and in-depth academic writing involved. My career background is in teaching in Further and Higher Education.
How will that help me with this exercise, I wonder?
My book, Grandma’s Poetry Book, has been out for two years. The idea to visit care homes came to mind when, soon after buying a copy, a local person casually mentioned she was reading two poems a day to her mother who had Alzheimer’s. They talked about their own memories of the children and grandchildren. For example, the poem, Schoolgirl, had been used to talk about when she and her brothers started school and, later, when the grandchildren started school. This grandmother had been active in caring for her daughter’s offspring and the reading of this particular poem triggered memories previously buried deep in the black hole that dementia leaves in its wake.
This was when the idea to take my book into care homes came to mind.
If a buyer who was not a trained teacher could achieve results, then surely, with my teacher training and 35 years experience with adults, I could do likewise. Now, I look round the small group, I am not so sure. They sit in their high-backed chairs, their hands in laps that used to hold knitting, sleepy children and the latest paperback. I am not saddened by what some might see as a heartbreaking scene of what age can do. My own mother died at the age of 52 when my first baby was six months old. She has missed everything that I have experienced since that date, two more babies and the wonder they bring, the grandchildren who provide such joy. Which is why, when I survey a room of elderly people, I feel happy to think of all they have experienced in their long lives. They are the lucky ones and we can all hope to arrive at that point in life’s long journey.
E does not seem to engage when I read the poems but at the end of the session she speaks. ‘I really love the illustrations’.
I am taken aback and realise that, whatever had happened in the previous hour, at least E had enjoyed seeing the pictures from my book. M was willing to talk and began a story about her life. She had lived in Bradford with her husband, Jim, and two sons. Weeks later, I found out there were five children, four boys and one girl.
Grandma’s Poetry Book charts the development of the first grandchild and the journey made by the first-time grandmother. By selecting certain poems to read I can encourage conversation whereby residents recall their own experiences. Much prompting is required but luckily I have the skills to elicit information.
The group members are selected. Sometimes one resident is brought to the group in an endeavour to get her out of her room. Others are chosen as being most likely to gain benefit.
I have visited this care home five times altogether, usually sitting in a corner of the lounge, battling the loud television and visitors’ laughter. On my latest visit, it was decided a quieter room is necessary. I had intended asking for this but was pleased it came from the Activities Manager. Hopefully, future sessions will be more interactive.
If one of the group falls asleep that is fine and there is no pressure. The others usually make up for the quiet from that corner. The member of staff present always makes notes and the phrase ‘I didn’t know that’ is a constant mantra.
On my first visit, I went with no preconceptions. As I left, the Manager told me one resident had lived at the home for six months but had not spoken until that afternoon. This was heartwarming and as I make repeated visits, some residents actively look out for me and show recognition. The Manager bought a copy of my book for the home and she always gets this out in the half an hour before I arrive. I also take my display copies for them to look at.
These I call ‘thumbables’. While the residents may appear switched off, when I read from the book, I see two or three of them find the page I am reading from. This demonstrates how we should not judge their abilities by what we see at first sight.
One of my visits coincided with someone bringing in her dog for ‘pet therapy’. Sometimes there are interruptions from the hairdresser but the residents’ visitors always sit quietly to allow the session to continue. These visits have been a pilot and now I feel ready to take my poetry into other care homes. The residents are about to begin writing a poem about their life in the home or their life before.
This is my next challenge.Watch this space.
EDITOR: Read about Di's poetry book here.