Back in 1997, recent college grad Gary Glazner, who had studied poetry and psychobiology in school, said yes to an arts-programming grant opportunity at an adult day program. “I didn’t know much about Alzheimer's, but I knew enough to think, ‘I probably can't do a traditional poetry workshop,’” says the Brooklyn-based poet.
Glazner built his first session around classic poems that participants would have likely learned as students. He knew he was onto something when he noticed a dramatic change in one of the participants, an older man who had been sitting in the room seemingly unaware of his surroundings. Glazner began reciting the William Wadsworth Longfellow poem “The Arrow and the Song,” with its first line, “I shot an arrow into the air.”
“His eyes popped open and he said: ‘It fell to earth, I knew not where.’ Suddenly he was back with us. It was such an amazing moment to see how effective the poems [can] be,” says Glazner.
"Participants display the ability for people with dementia to show examples of lifelong learning."
– Gary Glazner
Photo Courtesy Alzheimer’s Poetry Project
In the years since that first poetry workshop, Glazner’s Alzheimer’s Poetry Project has gone global, with programming in 36 US states, as well as in Canada, Australia, England, Germany, Poland, South Korea and Turkey.
As time has passed, executive director Glazner and his team of poet-facilitators have refined their approach, utilizing four specific techniques to spark creativity via poetry: call and response, engaging in conversations about a poem, props (using something that can be held, smelled, touched or tasted to stimulate the senses), and finally, creation, with facilitator and participants collaborating on a poem.
For Glazner, one of the most illuminating aspects of the programming — which now includes an intergenerational poetry program, a Memory Arts Café in New York City, and a pilot program geared at athletes and service people with traumatic brain injury — is its interactivity. By engaging in creative improvisation, building new skills and forming new memories, participants display “the ability for people with dementia to show examples of lifelong learning,” he says.
Glazner describes how one senior's group has created an entire routine around a favourite poem and song.
“One of the gentlemen I've had the pleasure of working with is a guy named Norman, and Norman loves singing Frank Sinatra songs. What we’ve done is connect Frank Sinatra’s song, ‘Fly Me to the Moon,’ to the end of the poem, ‘The Owl and the Pussycat,’ which ends, ‘Hand in hand, on the edge of the sand/They danced by the light of the moon/The moon /The moon.’ Now Norman has learned, without prompting, that when we finish ‘the moon,’ that's his cue to sing ‘Fly Me to the Moon,” and everybody will join in with him.”
The routine doesn’t stop there. “Norman has taken that and created a joke,” continues Glazner. “He now takes the line that says, ‘Baby, kiss me,’ and has changed it to, ‘Don't you kiss me.’ He'll wag his finger and say it emphatically. The group knows the joke.
They all will say, ‘Don't you kiss me,’ and wag their fingers. They’ve created a second joke, which is they’ll go, ‘Why not?’ That run of jokes, which started as improvisation then became a set pattern with that group, shows they are able to learn and make new synaptic connections, which is quite a remarkable shift in the way that we normally tell the story of people living with dementia.”