Poets spark memories with Alzheimer's patients

Flagstaff, AZ – Skip McGuinness is visiting his mom Ollie at a senior living facility in Flagstaff.

MCGUINNESS: Do you want to see a picture of your new great grandson? There he is 9 pounds 1 ounce. How many is that for her? That's three - two girls and one little boy.

Ollie has dementia. Alzheimer's is a form of dementia -- a degenerative, incurable disease that affects people's memories. During our visit Ollie asks who I am six times.

Experts say short term memories are more difficult to recollect than those from long ago. Joan Stacy is the program coordinator for the dementia unit at the Loyalton in Flagstaff.

STACY: Their long term memory is still in effect from when they were younger so that's why the poetry is so important because they come in and read poems from their era and these are things they remember so it sparks a memory and makes them happy it's helpful for them so they don't feel like they're in a sea of the unknown.

Ollie and about 15 residents gathered in the dining room for a poetry reading on a recent sunny morning. Some of them stare blankly at the wall. A couple people fall asleep. Ollie and a few others brighten when the poet speaks.

LANE: I would like to start off with a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson. If you know this poem please recite it along with me. It goes a little something like this: I have a little shadow that goes in and out of me and what can be the use of him is more than I can see

Poet Christopher Lane works the room. For the past year Lane has been reciting poetry to Ollie and other Alzheimer patients in Cottonwood, Prescott, Sedona and other places throughout the state.

LANE: But my lazy little shadow with its errant sleepy head had stayed at home behind me and was fast asleep in bed.

A New Mexico poet by the name of Gary Mex Glazner came up with the idea a decade ago when he was reciting poetry to seniors. Lane says a man who had never spoken before suddenly finished a line of poetry.

LANE: What we've seen is that poetry sits in a part of the brain that has not yet been affected by the disease of Alzheimer's or dementia.

As Lane recites the poems he looks into each person's eyes and holds their hands. He looks at them as he would look at a dear friend. (bring up poem under)

LANE: And then my heart with pleasure fills and dances with daffodils

(fade down)

LANE: It's just amazing to watch you'll see residents with their heads down. They'll seem very solemn. We'll read some poetry that they memorized when they were younger and their eyes light up and they seem to come back to us just for a moment.

That's happened with Ollie. She says poetry has made her feel young again.

OLLIE: I have a scrapbook and every once in a while I will go read through those and it has kept my mind in a youthful state.

Each month Lane asks everyone the same question.

LANE: What's the most beautiful thing you've ever seen?

One woman says the birth of her children. Another says a rainbow after a summer storm and someone else, a sunset. Ollie McGuinness has the same answer every time. She looks up and smiles a big smile.

OLLIE: My husband when he came back out of service. Is this from the war? Yes. And what was the song you were singing? Was there a song?

Lane says Ollie used to elaborate on this memory of her husband coming home from the war each time he visited. Now Lane has to draw it out of her.

LANE: So it's something that's very very close to her and that is a memory that she loves and that is a memory that she needs to hold onto and we need to keep reminding her of that.

LANE: The most beautiful thing that I've ever seen is all of you in this moment. Thank you. You're welcome, dear. Because the most beautiful thing is right here and right now.
(fade down)

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.