Alzheimer's Disease and other Dementias
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.
Try your own version of poetry facilitation. Place a few items such as a photograph, a quilt, a recipe box, or a pocket watch on a table. Ask the person to look at one of the items. After stressing that there is no wrong answer, slowly begin asking questions, taking care to write down the answers just as they are spoken. “What does this photograph remind you of?” “What season do you think about when you look at this quilt?” “What was your favorite thing to eat when you were a child?” “When you look at this pocket watch, what do you think about?” Let one answer lead to another question. Keep writing down the responses. You may not feel comfortable arranging the responses into a poem, but you will have enough to write a brief story. Watch what happens when you read the story back to the participant. The facilitation process is creatively stimulating, empowering, and just plain fun. What I wouldn’t give to have a written record of my parents’ memories and imaginings.
Here are two poems from my classes:
A Quilt Of Nature
In each square, I place
one of nature’s wonders—
The endless blue sky
on a spring day,
Fall leaves dancing,
dropping in orange waves.
The stillness of the forest
as snow lightly falls,
a summer sunset when
heaven is moving above.
–Residents of Belmont Senior Living, The Neighborhood, 8/19/15
Spoons from my travels,
delicate to the touch.
Porcelain dolls, baby dolls,
Madame Alexander dolls—
beauty on display.
tiny boxcars chugging
through a tree-lined village.
Baseball cards in a box—
Babe Ruth, the prized card
in my childhood collection.
–Residents of Edgemere Senior Living, 1/29/15
Molly Middleton Meyer is the founder of Dallas-based, Mind’s Eye Poetry. She writes poetry with dementia patients using an innovative facilitation process that includes sensory props, poetry recitation, and the use of memory triggering questions. Middleton Meyer not only helps those with Alzheimer’s recapture memories, but she also provides a much-needed outlet for creative expression and empowerment. To date, Middleton Meyer has facilitated over 500 poems written by people who are living with dementia. Her pioneering approach has received national attention. Mind’s Eye Poetry has been featured in U.S. News and World Report, the Huffington Post, the Dallas Morning News, Affect Magazine, Growing Bolder Magazine, and the Alzheimer’s Reading Room. Mind’s Eye Poetry’s radio and television coverage includes: NPR, Alzheimer’s Radio, Growing Bolder Radio, and Growing Bolder TV. When Middleton Meyer is not facilitating poetry with dementia patients, she writes her own. Her award-winning work has been featured in Antioch University’s Amuse-Bouche; Goddard University’s Duende Journal; The Merrimack Review; Words Dance Magazine; Postcard Poems and Prose; The Write Room, The Rainbow Journal; Mindset Poetry; HerKind; On The Grid Zine; Clarify (Red Dashboard Press); In Transit: Poetry of People on the Move (Border Town Press); and Disorder: Mental Illness and its Affect (Red Dashboard Press). Her first book of poetry, Echo of Bones was published in 2014. Middleton Meyer is an active member of the Alzheimer’s Association of Greater Dallas, where she serves on the Board of Directors. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University in 2014.