National Poetry Day
The lady at the table didn't seem to know who or where she was. We introduced ourselves but she didn't respond. When I spoke to a nurse, she explained that the lady's ability to understand anything was very limited.
The session that day had been set up in a hospital day room. Some sixth formers from the local school had joined me. Many of the patients in the room had been severely affected by dementia.
I started by explaining how the session would work. I told everyone that we often read famous poetry to see if anyone remembered learning it when they were much younger. When I gave a few examples, including a few lines by Shakespeare, AA Milne, Pam Ayres and Wordsworth, I noticed that the lady, who barely seemed to recognise her name, was watching me intently. Then she spoke.
"Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach", she said softly.
I asked our group to search for the poem in the poetry books we had brought with us, but we didn't find it. So we searched for it using the internet on our phones and then one of the sixth formers read it aloud. The lady smiled as she listened, at times joining in. Clearly energised by the recital, she asked about Ted Hughes. Her voice was soft. As she couldn't recall a particular favourite, we read her several poems and then someone asked her if she admired the work of his wife, Sylvia Plath.
"No" she replied. "Too depressing"
Over the three years we have been using poetry as a trigger we have had many, very moving, experiences. One lady, in her nineties, eyes shut and close to death, gently raised her hands above her head and applauded after I read The Daffodils by Wordsworth. Her son, clearly very moved, who had been holding her hand said: "Mum has just given you her equivalent of a standing ovation.'
'"Not me,'"I replied. "The ovation is for Wordsworth."
Gently, I asked her if she had learned the poem at school. She didn't reply but she smiled. That poem, I firmly believe, had not only triggered her memory, it had also taken her back to her schooldays.
Another relative was moved to write to us after we had read some poetry to her mother the day before she died
Hello Jill, Mum died the day after you read to her in Walsall Manor, I remember how she enjoyed the poem you read her by Kipling IF. I miss her terribly but I will always remember that day. I am an only child and no children so I feel a bit lost without her right now. keep up the good work if one day I can help you please let me know. God bless and enjoy your Christmas with your family. Take care’
Kissing it Better runs regular reminiscence sessions in hospitals and care homes. Reading familiar poetry, for someone with dementia, or other brain injuries, has been very successful as often patients not only recall the words, but the place where they first heard them. Sometimes we use music, where individuals or groups come in to sing popular songs ( The Beatles, Songs from the Musicals, ABBA, etc). We also run sessions using comics ( The Beano, Dandy etc), old fashioned sweets, hobbbies, films, anything to trigger a long-forgotten memory.
On National Poetry Day we are asking relatives and friends to think about the poems and stories their loved ones might have enjoyed as children, or as young adults, and to read them out loud to them. It might be a children's story (Just William, Famous Five, Milly Molly Mandy) or it might be an adult classic (Jane Eyre, Christmas Carol etc). And, of course it might be a poem.
It will make a difference to them and it will make a difference to you.