Poetry Project Helps Dementia Patients Live in the Moment

September 12, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
In our new series, "Where Poetry Lives," Natasha Trethewey, poet laureate of the United States, and Jeffrey Brown spends time at the Alzheimer's Poetry Project in Brooklyn. The international program works with people with dementia to try to trigger memory by playfully engaging with language.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, the first in a new series we will be bring you over the coming months. We’re calling this project Where Poetry Lives.

Jeffrey Brown tells us about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: We have a special guide traveling with us, poet laureate Natasha Trethewey. Our goal is to explore poetry and literature in various corners of American life, in sometimes unexpected ways and places, and we will seek to connect these trips to aspects of Natasha’s personal experience and, no doubt, to the experiences of many of you.

We will encounter some difficult and even painful problems, but also, we hope, capture the joy and more that art can bring.

We certainly saw all of that in this, our first report.

GARY GLAZNER, Alzheimer’s Poetry Project: Mortal, though.

Related Video

MEN AND WOMEN: Mortal, though.

GARY GLAZNER: Not sleeping.

MEN AND WOMEN: Not sleeping.

GARY GLAZNER: We must save it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Marianne Moore’s poem “The Camperdown Elm,” and standing before the tree itself on a beautiful day in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, poet Gary Glazner led a recitation.

GARY GLAZNER: OK, I say it, you say it.

Props are needed.

MEN AND WOMEN: Props are needed.

GARY GLAZNER: And tree food.

MEN AND WOMEN: And tree food.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s a performance, a kind of game, and something more, for these are men and women at various stages of dementia, now participants in the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project created by Glazner almost a decade ago.

MEN AND WOMEN: A poem as lovely as a tree.

GARY GLAZNER: I think it’s momentary happiness and satisfaction, quality of life.

I think that’s the thing we can learn from people living with dementia, is that they live in the moment, and in that moment, if we’re playful and we’re joking around and we’re doing poetry together, it’s just beautiful.

JEFFREY BROWN: Natasha Trethewey and I joined Glazner and his group on their recent outing in the park, as they listened, recited and even created some poetry of their own.

MEN AND WOMEN: It’s a perfect day.

GARY GLAZNER: I don’t call this a cloud.

MEN AND WOMEN: I don’t call this a cloud.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was part of a project that now operates in 24 states, as well as Germany, Poland and South Korea. In New York, it operates out of the New York Memory Center, a community-based nonprofit organization that’s designed a rigorous day program for people experiencing memory disorders, including yoga classes, computer skills instruction and poetry.

Several times a month, they’re joined by preschoolers housed in the same building. On this day, together, they recited William Wordsworth.

GARY GLAZNER: And then my heart with pleasure fills.

CHILDREN: Then my heart with pleasure fills.

GARY GLAZNER: And dances with the daffodils.

CHILDREN: And dances with the daffodils.

JEFFREY BROWN: Natasha joined in for a lighter moment.

NATASHA TRETHEWEY, U.S. Poet Laureate: I’m a poet.

GARY GLAZNER: I’m a poet.


GARY GLAZNER: And I know it.

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: And my feet surely show it.

GARY GLAZNER: And my feet surely show it.

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: Because they’re long fellows.

GARY GLAZNER: Because they’re long fellows.


GARY GLAZNER: All right. Very good, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: She also worked separately with Glazner and the Alzheimer’s group on “The Ode to the Statue of Liberty” by Emma Lazarus.

MEN AND WOMEN: Give me your tired, your poor.

JEFFREY BROWN: Seventy-five-year-old Ola Hightower first came to the center nine years ago.

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: When Gary said Emma Lazarus, you immediately said?

WOMAN: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.


NATASHA TRETHEWEY: Now, how did you — now, how did you memorize that poem?

WOMAN: Well, I guess I learned it when I was in college, you know, and I remember stuff. And I like reading. Oh, God, you should see my library.

JEFFREY BROWN: Memories of poems, of family members, of one’s own self, they’re what Alzheimer’s steals, short-term memory first and then, progressively, longer-term memory.

Today, some five million Americans live with the disease. As the population ages, some estimate the number will grow as high as 13.8 million in 40 years. It’s something that touches so many of us, including Natasha, who told of how watching a beloved aunt living with Alzheimer’s affected her and her early poetry.

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: The idea that what she was losing was personal history because she was losing memory, that’s the first thing I tried to make sense of, and how I saw her trying to grasp or hold onto things as she was losing so much in her head.

JEFFREY BROWN: There’s a lot still not known about the causes of Alzheimer’s, and there’s no cure.

But Memory Center executive director Christopher Nadeau says scientists and psychologists are seeing clear care benefits from working with language and art.

CHRISTOPHER NADEAU, New York Memory Center: What we’re seeing is more and more studies come out showing that we can certainly improve the quality of life of individuals that are living with Alzheimer’s and related dementia. And so what does that translate into? It translates to improved levels of self-esteem, a decrease in depression levels, and sustaining people in the community for longer periods of time.

JEFFREY BROWN: We saw simple, but direct examples of language triggering memory and a bit of fun, as Gary Glazner finished reciting Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat,” ending on the word moon.

MEN AND WOMEN (singing): Fly me to the moon let me play amongst the stars.

JEFFREY BROWN: Seventy-nine-year-old Norman Marcus, a retired stockbroker and Frank Sinatra fan, launched into a old favorite.

Patricia Bradley told us how, several years ago, her once-confident mother had grown anxious and fearful. These days 84-year-old, Kathleen Bradley goes to the Memory Center every day and quietly joins in the activities.

You like going to the Memory Center?

WOMAN: Yes, I do.


WOMAN: It gets out of the house.

JEFFREY BROWN: You what? You get out of the house.

WOMAN: Get out of the house.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, you like getting out of the house.



JEFFREY BROWN: So, you have friends there?



WOMAN: Mom is very lucid, and things come out and can come out very clearly. And it’s like wow. And other days, it’s not that easy. And it sometimes seems like, is there — what’s going on, like, what is the thought process? Can she really — is she really understanding at the moment what she’s really reading, because sometimes it seems like she is, but then it’s like forgotten.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then there was Bernie Packer, a former cook who talked, kidded and sang his way through the stroll.

MAN: Well, I’m 94. I do the best I can. I will be honest.

I approach the long-term memory — and now the short-time memory is getting pretty short. So it’s not that great anymore. But I made a deal with God…

JEFFREY BROWN: What’s the deal?

MAN: … you know, that he could do anything he wants to my body, but he must not fool with my brain. I want to remain sane until the day I go, you know?

JEFFREY BROWN: And how’s the deal going?

MAN: OK. I live in the present.

GARY GLAZNER: Once upon a midnight dreary.

MEN AND WOMEN: Once upon a midnight dreary.

GARY GLAZNER: While I pondered weak and weary.

JEFFREY BROWN: Joy was the word for one moment we all experienced in the park, as we came upon a saxophonist playing for the birds and passersby.

He joined Glazner and the group for an improvised version of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.”

GARY GLAZNER: Quoth the raven, nevermore.

MEN AND WOMEN: Quoth the raven, nevermore.

JEFFREY BROWN: A short walk in the park, a sax, and a lot of poetry, memories lost, moments gained.

And we have much more on this story online, including Gary Glazner and Natasha Trethewey reading their own poems about memory and loss. Natasha has also written a short essay about our trip. And you can send us your thoughts and questions about our report. Natasha and I will answer them in an online chat we will post next week.

Next up in our series: a visit to Detroit and a report on InsideOUT, a writing program in inner-city schools. We will have that for you in October.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That was lovely.


Natasha Trethewey is the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University.