teenager's voice breaks the silence that hangs over the dozing, grey-haired
figures. "If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs
and blaming it on you," she recites – "you'll be a man, my
son", finishes one of the pensioners, with a burst of recognition.
Alzheimer's has stolen most
of Margaret's memories, but she can still remember the line from Rudyard
Kipling's famous poem that she learnt years ago, a rare moment of clarity in
the fog of the cruel disease.
retirement home in central England is one of many institutions and hospitals
across the country turning to poetry to provide some respite from the symptoms
of dementia, such as the loss of memory, communication and basic skills.
provides no cure, the rhythm and pace of well-known verse can act as a trigger
for memories and speech, according to Jill Fraser, whose charity "Kissing
it Better" organises reading sessions for the elderly.
brightens their day
"hear one word that they can remember from poetry, it brightens their day
up," adds Elaine Gibbs, who runs the Hylands House retirement home in
Stratford-upon-Avon – fittingly, the home of William Shakespeare.
Cowley, elegant in a flowered dress and her grey hair tied up into a bun,
listens attentively as a teenager reads her "Daffodils" by William
know the poem but I've forgotten it. I learnt it when I was a kid at school, a
long time ago," said the retired teacher, who suffers from short-term
brings back good memories. I will have some good dreams after that, dreams of
daffodils, of trees."
'The long good-bye'
The home can
be a sombre place because of the prevalence of residents with Alzheimer's,
dubbed 'the long good-bye' because of the way it slowly steals away everything
that makes a person who they are.
But as a
woman bashes a plate incessantly against a table at one end of the room,
seemingly oblivious to her surroundings, one of the teenage volunteer readers
says spending time there "gives you a real buzz".
come in here and everyone is sitting there by themselves," says Hannah
Ciotkowski, 15. Then when someone starts reading a poem aloud "you can
immediately see life in them, they are smiling".
wonderful when suddenly they join in with a line," adds Anita Wright, an
81-year-old former actress with the Royal Shakespeare Company who also reads
poetry at Hylands.
how one patient with advanced dementia broke down in tears when she heard a
poem about a man bidding farewell to his lover, and started recounting how her
fiancé had died.
had not said a single word since she had been to this home and the poem just
broke open the dam," Wright said.
head of voice at the RSC, says poetry can be very powerful.
rhythms run deeply inside of us and poetry can touch and spark memories of not
just emotions but the deep senses of language," she told AFP.
halt the onslaught
caution that poetry will not halt the onslaught of dementia, which affects 800
000 people in Britain.
does not cure dementia," says Dave Bell, a specialist nurse with Dementia
UK, a charity which works to improve the quality of life for people affected by
there is a sense of achievement and self-esteem for the person because they can
remember something," he says, adding that it also helps them connect with
Hannah is certainly convinced: "I hope that when I am old, people will
come visit me, read to me and sing to me."