Molly Meyer teaching
Alzheimer's Disease and other Dementias
Senior Health

Rewriting Dementia: Poetry and Alzheimer's Patients

By Molly Middleton Meyer

It’s difficult to imagine that out of grief could come something so beautiful, that out of pain could come healing, but that’s exactly what happened.

In 2008, my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. My then 79-year-old mother bore most of the emotional and physical turmoil. I could use the excuse that I was uneducated about the disease (which I was), or that I was busy taking care of my own four children (which I was), but my mom needed support, the kind I didn’t know how to give. What did my father need? It never occurred to me to ask.

My father lived for three years with the disease. In early 2011, he passed away suddenly from a bowel obstruction. Perhaps it was a kinder way to go. He knew all of his children until the day he died. We are told that losing a parent is the natural order of things. Experiencing the “natural order of things,” doesn’t make it any easier.

Not long after my father died, my mother called me to tell me that her stove was broken. It wasn’t broken. She forgot how to turn it on. Thus began her descent into Alzheimer’s. One month after she was officially diagnosed, she suffered a massive seizure that resulted in severe brain damage. I thought I’d have more time with her. We always think we’ll have more time.

It turns out that time was running out on my marriage, too. My husband of 25 years broke the news to me one morning as I was emptying the trashcan. “I just can’t do this anymore. I don’t know who I am.” And with that, my entire world crumbled. In the span of three short years, I lost my parents and my marriage. I lost myself.

How strange it may seem, then, that a series of profound losses eventually led me back to myself. In 2013, I dared to trust life again. I dared to embark on a venture that many thought was crazy. I merged my love for poetry with my desire to provide people who are living with dementia creative stimulation, empowerment, and dignity. I chose to give others what I couldn’t give my own parents.

Mind’s Eye Poetry has become my passion and my life’s mission. I work with people in all stages of dementia, using the rhythms of poetry to make connections. I incorporate props, poetry recitation, and the asking of open-ended questions to elicit responses that I then turn into poems. Even participants who no longer have the ability to speak enjoy my sessions. They participate through their open eyes and smiles.

To date, I’ve facilitated over 800 poems written by people whom many think are lost. They are not lost. They have the capacity to create and experience joy. We need only look beyond our own grief to find the language of healing.