Art Works Blog

Poetry Out Loud Students Participate in Poetry for Life

The Poetry Out Loud National Finals are just a couple weeks away. But the recitation contest is far from the final forum participating students have to perform poetry. One opportunity is Poetry for Life, which joins the young poets participating in Poetry Out Loud with older adults at assisted living and adult daycare centers. Established in 2014, Poetry for Life is a program of the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project (APP), an NEA grantee founded by Gary Glazner in 2003 to help improve the lives of older adults and people living with memory loss, dementia, and Alzheimer’s through poetry. We reached out to Glazner and drama teacher Amber Wolfe, who has been participating in Poetry for Life for two years. The following conversations ensued.

Gary Glazner, founder and executive director of the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project 

NEA: Can you start by telling us a little about Alzheimer’s Poetry Project?

GARY GLAZNER: The APP began in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 2003. Since that time we have provided programming in 26 states and internationally in Australia, Canada, England, Germany, Poland, and South Korea.

NEA: Can you talk about some of the existing research on the benefits of exposing the arts, and poetry in particular, to older adults and people living with memory loss? 

GLAZNER: In 2014, Aagje Swinnen, professor of literature at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship for a five-month study of the APP. Her paper, “Healing Words: Critical Inquiry of Poetry Interventions in Dementia Care,” was published in the journal Dementia. We had many discussions on why poetry works so well with people living with memory loss. In describing the APP she wrote, “It is in the ongoing exchange between performer and audience who simultaneously produce and consume poetry that comfort is found not only for the people with dementia but the poet-performer as well.”

NEA: How did you come up with the idea to involve students participating in Poetry Out Loud?

GLAZNER: In the mid-1980s, I was trained in the Poets-in-the-Schools program in California and have always loved working with students and poetry. It was a natural fit to create intergenerational programs in my work with people living with memory loss. In hundreds of sessions watching students with older people and those living with memory loss perform and create poetry, I have witnessed joy, happiness, and bonding. Through creativity the students help [older adults] improve the quality of their lives. As Lucille Clifton says, “Poetry is a way of living in the world.”

NEA: Can you describe a particularly moving moment you’ve witnessed?

GLAZNER: The moment I have seen over and over is when the students start to laugh and be playful with the older adults. Everyone relaxes and there is an opening for moments of magic and exchange. We often hold the person’s hand and move it to the rhythm of the poem and often the students will say after the session that the person held their hand tightly and would not let go until the poem was over. 

NEA: What impact have you seen Poetry for Life have on caregivers?

GLAZNER: When we take a person’s hand or interact in any way, we always ask permission: “May I take your hand please?” One of the caregivers in Mississippi remarked on her mother after the session, “One thing the students brought out was to ask permission—‘May I do this? What do you think?’ What Mother thinks is important. She still needs to know that she is a viable person and that her ideas and attitudes are appreciated. She needs to know she is loved and appreciated and that’s what all of these people need. No matter what their mental state.” 

NEA: What is the next step in growth for Poetry for Life?

GLAZNER: With the national launch of Poetry for Life we are working hard to fulfill our goal, of having a minimum of 10 percent of the 315,000 students who participate in the Poetry Out Loud: National Recitation Contest, participate in Poetry for Life. This would bring about 30,000 students to work with elders and change the scope of creative aging volunteers in the U.S.

NEA: Three words to describe Poetry for Life?

GLAZNER: Poetry! For! Life! 

Amber Wolfe, drama teacher at Cleveland Central High, Cleveland, Mississippi

NEA: How did you get involved with Poetry for Life? 

AMBER WOLFE: Rori Herbison, the executive director of the Delta Arts Alliance, heard about it and said, “Amber I have something that has your name all over it.” I was all in.

NEA: Where do you take your students? Can you describe a typical visit? 

WOLFE: We go to the long-term care ward of Bolivar Medical Hospital, usually on Wednesdays. When we get there the [residents] line up in the hall. We greet them and “take them for a ride,” meaning we push their wheelchairs into the activities room. Once everyone is settled in a circle the kids and I go around the room hugging and shaking hands and reintroducing ourselves to each resident. One of us, usually me, will give the Welcome talk. I explain what our poetry theme is for that week and tell them what led us to come up with that theme. For example, on Valentine’s Day we read poems about different forms of love and ways people express love. I had the students write about their first love, be it mom or dad, chocolate ice-cream, theater/drama club. We also look up poems by several poets that have to do with our topic. Then we alternate between a poem we wrote and another perspective poem from a famous poet. We sing a song or make up a tune to some of the poems and get the residents to chant or sing along too. Usually a few short lines that have good poetic rhythm, we chant over and over.

NEA: What benefits do you see your students reaping from both their recitation of poetry and also their engagement with elders and people living with memory loss?

WOLFE: They learn compassion and empathy, traits that have to be experienced and seen to truly learn and understand. I have seen a change in the students that participate in this program becoming kinder, gentler, and overall just more open and understanding of the plight of others. They have also begun to really understand the emotional texture of the written word and poetry. They are more emotionally tuned to the works that we read and have a better understanding of subtext and finding the emotional distinctions in a piece. They also have become more aware of the scary and heartbreaking realities of dementia, Alzheimer’s, and memory loss. Some of them want to make people more aware of these conditions and train others to deal with it so they can be better equipped to handle loved ones. 

NEA: You’ve been participating in this program for two years. What is driving you to continue?

WOLFE: My students are the driving force behind this program. They love it and never want to stop. They love our residents/patients and seeing them grow through this program is very beneficial to my students. It also helps our residents. They are so happy to see the kids and have so much fun with us, which in turn helps them deal with their condition and seems to at least help in reducing the amount, length, and consistency of loops. Loops are when a person gets “stuck” in a thought pattern, word, or phrase that they repeat to themselves over and over. 

NEA: Why do you think poetry in particular works in this setting as opposed to, say, music or visual art? 

WOLFE: I think it works in that the rhyme patterns are a little easier to immediately remember and it is familiar to them because in school we have all had to study poetry—not everyone studied music or art. I will say that we sing a lot and incorporate old church hymns, and this really helps our residents. But music and songs are just poems with underscoring. Poetry is the outpour of one’s soul and is the embodiment of pure emotion, and in this form we find it easy to connect on a mental/emotional level. Stirring up these strong emotions does something to us. While our residents’ memory is lapsing and fading, their emotions are not and this give us a thread through which we are able to connect with them.

NEA: Can you describe a particularly moving moment you’ve witnessed?

WOLFE: We have two residents who are sisters. One is much better health-wise than the other. We did a unit on dreams and wishes, and she sat next to her sister and held her hand, and she said that her wish was for her sister to be happy. The sister with the poor health is almost non-responsive and very rarely says anything coherent. But upon hearing her sister say this, she smiled really big and said, “Me too I want her to be happy too.” The love they had for one another was a tether out of the confusion. It made us so touched that all the residents went around wishing happiness for one another and it was just a beautiful day.

NEA: You’ve visited one of your former professors of Shakespeare, who is now living with memory loss. Can you tell us about that experience?

WOLFE: Yes, my amazing Shakespeare professor. This man was the best English teacher I have ever had and he taught me how to love Shakespeare again. He is not doing well and is, for the most part, completely unresponsive. He is bedridden which is strange to see. He was always bounding around the room while teaching and would get us up and have us “truly live the words” by acting out the scenes. I wrote a paper in his class that he loved about Shakespeare’s use of light description in the play Romeo and Juliet. I also performed the monologue scene of Juliet when she is about to drink the sleeping potion. Well, one session I sat with him and recited that monologue and he looked at me (which was huge), then he started trying to say something: “Ju-Ju-,” and I think he was trying to say Juliet. Since then I make a point to go see him and read a little Shakespeare or Emily Dickinson (he loves her). This seems to help lift his spirits. He has very rarely responded but some days are better than others. We are getting stronger reactions from him when we read poems or plays that he has a strong connection with.  

NEA: Any advice for educators interested in participating?

WOLFE: Just go for it. Jump in with both feet fully committed to it. If you don’t buy in and commit to this process, it won’t work. 

NEA: Three words to describe Poetry for Life?

WOLFE: Life-changing experience. 

Listen to our audio segment about the Alzheimer's Poetry Project with Gary Glazner. And don't forget to save the date for the Poetry Out Loud National Finals on April 25-26. Watch live on!

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