Spotlight on the Alzheimer's Poetry Project

By Paulette Beete
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

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. (Editor’s Note: Professor de Medeiros’ study was published in The Gerontologist in April 2018.)

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. 

Listen to the story to learn more.

Gary Glazner: So the most interesting thing as an artist with working with people with memory loss is first of all what is memory, right?  Music bridge ADAM KAMPE: IN 2004, GARY GLAZNER FOUNDED THE ALZHEIMER’S POETRY PROJECT, A PIONEERING ARTS ORGANIZATION BUILT TO IMPROVE THE LIVES OF ADULTS WITH MEMORY LOSS. GG: So you get to this place where the edges of our knowledge start to appear, where we really don’t understand things. For instance, they don’t know what causes Alzheimer’s. They have ideas around it.  There’s no effective treatment. So one of the things that’s most effective right now that they’re showing in many studies is using arts.  And there’s a whole movement of people using dance, music, storytelling and poetry to work with people with memory loss. So it’s this crossover between pure creativity and, in our case, performing the poems with people and creating poems. And that it may have some therapeutic benefit. You know, it certainly speaks to the issue of quality of life. AK: JUST ASK ANN AND OLA, TWO WOMEN IN GLAZNER’S WEEKLY CLASS AT THE NEW YORK MEMORY CENTER IN BROOKLYN. ANN: He gets everyone involved. Right. And yeah, the participation is good. And course some of the folks here kind of don’t want to do anything. And then all of a sudden they come to life. Back to Gary GG: So I’m going to say a line of the poetry and you repeat after me that way we can perform it together. Okay? A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame Is imprisoned lightning, and her name Is imprisoned lightning, and her name Fade out, into music. AK: INSPIRED BY USING POETRY WITH HIS MOTHER WHEN SHE WAS ILL, GLAZNER SAW HOW EFFECTIVE POEM RECITATION WITH SENIORS COULD BE. OVER TIME, HE DEVELOPED THIS INTERACTIVE CALL AND RESPONSE METHOD TO ACTIVATE (SHARPEN?) THE MINDS OF PEOPLE WITH MEMORY LOSS. RECENTLY, GLAZNER JOINED FORCES WITH PROFESSOR KATE DE MEDEIROS TO MEASURE THE IMPACT OF THE ALZHEIMER’S POETRY PROJECT, A FIVE-TIME NEA GRANTEE. Music under this section may go on too long, may be too distracting Kate de Medeiros: Let me start out by talking about dementia first because dementia is a broad term that describes a lot of different disorders, Alzheimer’s being one of them. AK: Kate de Medeiros… KdM: I’m an assistant professor here at Miami University in the Department of Sociology and Gerontology. So essentially dementia is categorized by memory loss that is not typical for one’s age so there are certain ways of determining that. Loss of orientation to space and time, general confusion. I first met Gary when a friend and colleague of mine, Anne Basting, who does theater work with people and dementia gave me his name and said, “You really have to call Gary and learn more about what he’s doing.” She knew I was interested in looking at the arts and dementia. GG: And we’re involved in a research project to study what goes on in a poetry session. KdM: Research and the arts are two different ways of thinking. And it’s been difficult to really show from a research standpoint using traditional methods that the arts have an effect. GG: So like are you looking at the person and saying the amount of times that they’re smiling during a session? So this is one of the field reports we use to work with our teaching artists. They identify verbal engagement, positive facial expressions, these type of things, and then we rate them on a scale.  KdM: You end up trying to measure a dose of poetry which seems silly, but that’s kind of what ends up happening. GG: When you look at the drug studies, if they say this drug is going to slow down memory loss, when you look at their actual measurement tools, is it remarkably different than how you would gauge art? And what they’re looking at is, one of the classic ones is, “I’m going to give you a list of 12 words, and then I’m going to come back to you in 10 minutes and see how many you remember.” But what does it tell you about the quality of life of the person?  KdM: And one of the challenges we have is because people do have problems with verbal fluency and with being able to explain what they’re experiencing, it’s hard to know exactly what’s happening. That’s one of the challenges of research. We can’t ask people, so what are you thinking when you hear this? Because they may not have the language skills at that point to be able to say. But, the interesting thing is that when you watch people undergoing this you can just see on their face moments of joy, moments of not being someone with dementia, but just being somebody reciting a poem and enjoying it. Class ambience, talking GG: What you see is they become more alive, their eyes brighten up, their affect brightens. They laugh more, they’re playful. They become more vocal. They start to talk more in general, in addition to saying the poems.  Gary and class: I think that I shall never see A poem as lovely as a tree KdM: So I had the opportunity to invite Gary out to do a poetry session. It’s interesting because what he does it’s not just about poetry as a static art form. I mean he makes poetry a living, breathing thing. We were doing poems about flowers. So one of the poems was my love is like a red, red rose and he brought in a dozen roses. So he had this bouquet of roses that he brought around to each person and asked if they wanted to touch them. GG: Now how does that feel? Ola: Oh, it feels good. GG: It feels good. Ola: Yeah, I feel good. GG: I feel good. (sings song by James Brown) I feel good. I feel good. I knew that i would. I knew that i would Class ambience under KdM: I don’t think that the caregivers ever think to do those things. How often do you think, wow, I wonder if I should bring a bouquet of roses around? I mean it’s just those little things that take people out of the everyday and transport them into a special time and moment that is just really so valuable.  Cut to GG: Feels like velvet. Now this is the crazy part because it can be as creative as possible, right? So in this poem we’re actually talking to the rose, saying you’re beautiful, you’re lovely. What does the rose say back to you? Class member: Thank you. GG: Thank you. It says thank you. So it’s a very polite rose. What else would the rose say. Evadeen, if the rose could talk…? Evadeen: Stop smelling me. GG: Stop smelling me, Stop smelling me. (laughter). I love that the rose would kind of be tired of being smelled… Fade under GG: So call and response, when you’re asking somebody to repeat back a line of poetry, works on a type of memory which is echoic memory or echo memory. And this type of memory is a sense memory and we basically can remember four to eight seconds of speech. KdM: …Which makes poetry safe for everyone. You don’t have to rely on your memory because he’s already done that for you. But you also have a voice. So he’s not reading you poetry. He’s giving you a line and then having you say it back. So in that respect you can be your own participant. GG: So here we go. My love is like a red, red rose. class: My love is like a red, red rose. GG: That’s newly sprung in June  class: That’s newly sprung in June…. GG: My theory is, and this comes from an essay by Jane Hirshfield, the wonderful California poet, who has an essay called “Poetry as Vessel of Remembrance.” And she talks about how we use poetry before written word in the oral tradition to keep our community’s history. And what she says in the essay, it’s the first memory device. And so I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s so powerful. Music bridge KdM: One of the things that we firmly believe that the arts do is because they are so rooted to memory, I’m sorry so rooted to emotion, in addition to memory, that it calls up a feeling that’s different than say calling up a list of random nouns for no reason that it can put you in this place that’s truly transformative. GG: We play a lot with combining the poems with songs. And the songs kind of come organically out of the group. These are songs that they like to sing.  So I try to find a poem that matches with that song. We play with a lot with songs. Our big hit is the end of “The Owl and the Pussycat,” which is, “Hand in hand on the edge of the sand, I dance by the light of the moon,” and combining that with “Fly Me to the Moon,” which our star singer, Norman, sings, and he loves. Cut to class. Hand in Hand, Hand in Hand, On the edge of the sand On the edge of the sand We dance by the light of the moon We dance by the light of the moon The moon, the moon, the moon. [Cue Norman] So fly me to the moon And let me play amongst the stars Let me see what life is like on Jupiter and Mars In other words, hold my hand In other words, don’t you kiss me… Hand in hand….(fades under) GG: When you look at the whole realm, we’re at the place where all of the drugs are either completely ineffective or only effective within the margin of error, and then you look at the studies that are coming out around arts, and it’s just an amazing place to be to make a difference. For me, it’s a real honor to be able to work with people. And again, tying back in my own experience of seeing how it worked with my mom. Music bridge AK: THAT WAS GARY GLAZNER, FOUNDER AND DIRECTOR OF THE ALZHEIMER’S POETRY PROJECT AND PROFESSOR KATE DE MEDEIROS OF MIAMI UNIVERSITY OF OHIO, DISCUSSING HOW POETRY CAN DRAMATICALLY IMPROVE THE LIVES OF THOSE SUFFERING FROM MEMORY LOSS. FOR MORE STORIES ON THE ARTS AND HEALTH, PLEASE CHECK OUT THE LATEST ISSUE OF NEA ARTS ONLINE AT ARTS.GOV. THAT’S A R T S. G O V. FOR THE NEA, I’M ADAM KAMPE. MUSIC CREDITS: ALL SONGS USED COURTESY OF CREATIVE COMMONS AND FOUND ON THE FREE MUSIC ARCHIVE ON WFMU.ORG - Excerpt of “Padded Walls (rEdit) by Floating Spirits from the album, Transmit.  - Excerpt of “Autumn” by Janne Hanhisuanto from the album, Absolute Balance. - Excerpt of “reMIDIscenze” by Seralf and Knob Alchemist from the album, Absolute Balance. - Excerpt of “MCMLXXXI Choir” by Andy and Zeus from the album, Tales of Power. - Excerpt of “August” by Marcel Pequel from the album, 12 Months.

This story originally appeared in the 2014 National Endowment for the Arts magazine issue Healing Properties: Art + Health.