Nursing Times Award Winner

Kissing it Better goes global

It started with a poem and the story of a wonderful lady on a rehabilitation ward, who staff told us did not even recognize her own name. See:

First it was BBC local radio who asked us to appear on their live show, then Radio Four’s PM programme requested a live interview. And so it went on. Everywhere we went, we met people who had heard us talk about the effect of reading familiar poetry to people with dementia and many wanted to get involved.

But even we were surprised –and delighted – to be contacted by AFP, the third biggest news agency in the world. AFP works in 150 countries across the world and has more than 2,000 collaborators. And they wanted to film with us for the day!

Within a few hours we had set up a filming opportunity for them in two care homes in Stratford upon Avon – one specializing in dementia care and one for people with a wider range of physical and mental disabilities.

What we wanted, more than anything, was to demonstrate the remarkable intellect many of these wonderful people still have and how, with specialized knowledge, people of all ages can learn so much from them about their remarkable life experiences. Poetry and music can provide a key to open up these memories.

Who better to describe the power of poetry than Kissing it Better’s patron, the former Poet Laureate Sir Andrew Motion

“Kissing It Better does untold good. By connecting people suffering with dementia to melodies and poetries still living inside them, it connects them with their richest selves and also with the world outside them. The beneficial effects are extraordinary.”

And so it was when we filmed with the news agency AFP.

When we arrived, the atmosphere was very quiet. We had brought a small team of young Kissing it Better volunteers, all regular visitors to the homes. We were also delighted to be accompanied by an actor from the Royal Shakespeare Company. Over the last few years we have developed a strong link with the RSC and actors from the company have given short performances in care homes on eight separate occasions. The response from the residents has been hugely moving.

The session started with the group leaders reading short extracts from several well known poems including Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Pam Ayres, and A. A. Milne. The volunteers watched carefully to see which resident responded to which poem. Then they followed up their group recital by going to sit with the ladies and gentlemen and reading the poem that appeared to have given that particular person the most pleasure.

Within minutes, the noise level in the room had shot up as everyone talked enthusiastically, not simple about the poetry but also about the memories they had of the time and place where they first heard it. The residents clearly loved the enthusiasm of the readers and the readers benefitted hugely from the life experiences and knowledge of the residents. One poem triggered memories of others and it was delightful to watch the young people as they looked up poems both in their anthologies and on their smart phones - their own knowledge of poetry widening by the minute.

The part of the brain used to recall poetry and other rhymes is not the same as the parts used in everyday conversation. Time and again we saw residents who rarely communicate with one another delight in the realization that words learned by heart at school were suddenly coming back to them. One lady beamed at us as she recalled nearly every word of “The Owl and the Pussycat” by Edward Lear. Another was keen to tell us her memories of “Vespers” from the book “When we were Very Young” by A.A. Milne.

In the afternoon we moved to another care home where we used words from famous songs to trigger memories. One schoolchild beamed at a lady who joined in as she sang “Over the Rainbow”. Trained by Kissing it Better to understand how to communicate with people who have dementia, the young girl thanked the lady for helping her:

“It was so helpful to have your support,” she told her “in case I forgot the words”.

The lady beamed at us all in delight.

Another lady looked so lost when we first arrived. She didn't say anything when we spoke to her. She simply stared into the distance, looking very sad. But, when the girls sang "Moon River", we noticed that she was humming the tune.

When the film crew asked the girls to sing it again, so that they could get some additional shots, the lady started to sing the words. She sang them beautifully. When we all congratulated her on her wonderful performance and asked her if she had been a trained singer, she nodded, beamed at us all and very slowly started to speak. It made several visitors cry.

Our population is getting older. At Kissing it Better we passionately believe that we all need to understand as much as possible about the conditions linked to advancing years if we are to ensure that we gain the maximum benefit possible from older people’s rich life experiences.

Helping those people realize how much we appreciate their experiences and their knowledge of the world not only enhances the skills of a younger generation, it also dignifies those older people as they realize they can still play a hugely important role in the lives of others.

Jill Fraser

Jill Fraser

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