Sparking Memories with Poetry: The Alzheimer's Poetry Project

Norman-image by Michael Hagedorn.jpg

Man reciting poetry with eldery men.

Poet Gary Glazner (center) working with participants of the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project, which uses poetry recitation to trigger brain activity and help people suffering from memory loss. Photo by Michael Hagedorn

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Poet Gary Glazner bounded into the New York Memory Center with a dozen roses and an infectious smile. “My love is like a red, red, rose,” he called out to the students, who called back the same line with enthusiasm. It was like he had hit a switch, or turned on the light. Suddenly, the roomful of seniors in varying stages of memory loss came to life.

And it was with this goal that Glazner launched the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 2004—to awaken the minds of those suffering from memory loss. The project, supported by the NEA, has held sessions at more than 100 facilities throughout the U.S. and internationally, reaching more than 15,000 people living with Alzheimer’s.

The evidence is becoming more and more clear that Glazner’s been on to something all these years. The Alzheimer’s Poetry Project is now part of a study, spearheaded by Professor Kate de Medeiros at Miami University-Ohio, to measure the impact of the program on people living with memory loss. Poetry, like dance and music, is proving to be yet another art form that moves Alzheimer's patients to become more vocal, more social, and, quite frankly, more alive. This is especially notable given the inefficacy of medication (which can also cause harm); the high rate of caregiver burnout; and the whopping $150 billion spent annually on Alzheimer’s patients through Medicare and Medicaid. The project was also a feature in the 2011 NEA publication The Arts and Human Development.

Needless to say, the arts are an effective, engaging, and economical tool to help not only those with memory loss but also those managing their care.