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The Alzheimer's Poetry Project: How poetry brings memory to life

Updated on August 16, 2014
CC by 2.0
CC by 2.0 | Source

Sparking Memories: The Alzheimer's Poetry Project Anthology

Sparking Memories: The Alzheimer's Poetry Project Anthology
Sparking Memories: The Alzheimer's Poetry Project Anthology

Amazon lists this book for a high price; whereas amazon reviewers confirm that the APP web site lists it for a more reasonable price.


The Arrow that Changed the Face of Alzheimer's

Gary Glazner, founder of the Alzheimer's Poetry Project, tells the story of receiving a small grant in 1997 from Poets & Writers Magazine to conduct a series of workshops at a senior drop-in center in Northern California. One day, as he recited Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem, "The Arrow and the Song:"

"I shot an arrow into the air"

Glazner heard a gentleman, who he thought was asleep or lost in a haze, call out:

"It fell to earth, I knew not where;"

And a whole world of possibilities opened up. Glazner writes in the anthology, Sparking Memories, " For that moment he was able to reach back to some part of his psyche that was not damaged by the disease. It was one of many wonderful moments we experienced during the workshop and showed me the power of reading those classic poems—I was hooked." (Introduction, Sparking Memories).

Little did Glazner know, but within a few years, he'd have a whole world hooked.

A photo of me leading an APP session, 2009
A photo of me leading an APP session, 2009 | Source

How to Make a Living as a Poet by Gary Glazner

How to Make a Living as a Poet
How to Make a Living as a Poet

the book that introduced me to Gary and the APP


And Dances with the Daffodils

I met Gary Glazner in 2008, three years after I worked at an assisted living center for those with Alzheimer's and dementia. I loved my time there, but found it difficult to witness the decay and down-slides of health. My heart was sensitive and soft and I knew it. I had received my Master's degree in poetry, however, and I knew the power of the written word. When I discovered the APP (Alzheimer's Poetry Project), I contacted Gary through his book, "How to Make a Living as a Poet" and learned more about how this new approach to connecting with the elderly worked.

- Use classic poetry with metrical rhyming to connect with the residents. Poems like Blake's "The Tyger" or "Daffodils" by Wordsworth have a cadence that lends itself to easy sharing. The leader recites a line at a time, often taking the hand of the resident, and, using eye contact and a big smile, has that individual echo the line back.

And then my heart with pleasure fills

And dances with the daffodils

- During the second half of the session, the leader prompts the residents to produce a group poem, often centered around a theme such as a recent holiday or a phrase such as "my favorite food." You must be ready for the unexpected when asking for answers to such questions. For example, when asking an individual with Alzheimer's, "what is your favorite season?" he/she might answer, instead, "hot dog wrapped in butter." With enough experience, you can turn any answer into a creative and lively one. There is no right or wrong answer with these amazing folks. Using the hot dog example, you can say, "yes, of course hot dogs wrapped in butter reminds me of summer!" One of the biggest pleasures I find is connecting someone's comment that seems "out of place" with the question asked. It affirms the individual and builds self-confidence. These are the times when I see how poetry can open doors that were previously locked.

- Each session ends with a performance of the group poem - either by the leader or by the group as a whole. This recognizes the words and phrases each person contributed. It is common to see the residents active and lively at the end of each session as the energy is palpable. That energy is one of openeness, humor, and compassion that the leader must bring to each session.

Gary Glazner interacts with Seniors at the Adult Day Care in Novato, CA, 1997

The APP and Beyond

The Alzheimer's Poetry Project has had such success since its inception in 2004 that it now has held sessions at over 100 facilities in 22 states and internationally in Germany and Poland. The National Endowment of the Arts listed the APP as a best practice for the NEA Arts and Aging initiative. The APP was awarded the 2012 MetLife Foundation Creativity and Aging in America Leadership award in the category of Community. All over the world people - health care workers, family members, and poets alike, are trained to give the gift of poetry to those with Alzheimer's and dementia. However, the gift is not just poetry, but a way into a reservoir of memory that was previously untapped.

The APP unlocks doors, unclasps buttons held tight with disease, and lets loose joy you have never seen. Particpants smile, sometimes for the first time in days. They reach toward you and hold your hand as you recite "The Raven" by Edgar Allan Poe. The eye contact you make with them might be the only connection they have that day.

As the Wisconsin Director of the APP, this organization has become more than a nonprofit volunteer position for me; it has become a way to step into people's lives, even for an hour, and bring hope, joy, and creativity.

Dementia Arts: Celebrating Creativity in Elder Care

Dementia Arts
Dementia Arts

Gary Glazner's latest book on Dementia Arts. Glazner is a gifted writer and storyteller. Here he writes for the health care professional and layperson alike.


a poem by Gary Glazner:

We Are Forget

We are the words we have forgotten.

We are shifting and pacing.

We wrote this poem.

It's a pretty poem.

Can you bake a cherry pie?

Never more, never more.

We have no horizon.

We don't recall washing or eating

or what you just said.

Ask me my name.

Ask me if I have children?

You're a pretty lady.

You have beautiful eyes.

Wash me, put me to bed clean,

hold me as I fall asleep.

Give me a kiss, brush my hair.

You are my daughter?

Light washing over us moment, moment.

You're a handsome man.

Our hand writing is beautiful

twists and loops of letters

we can't remember our hands.

Our ears are wishful

we can't remember our ears.

We can speak every language,

we can't remember our mouths.

We are porous.

We are the past.

We are forget.

Dementia Arts Resources

Follow the APP blog

Enjoy the APP YouTube channel

Gary Glazner's blog, "How to Make a Living as a Poet"

Alzheimer's Foundation of America

APP in Arizona

Kairos Alive! Kairos Alive!'s Choreography of Care™: our multi-disciplinary arts interventions for older adults, including those with Neuro Cognitive Impairment, led by a team of professional artists

A Few Thoughts on Reading and Reciting Poetry in Public (from the APP web site)

Effectiveness of Dementia Arts

How effective do you think organizations like the Alzheimer's Poetry Project is to reaching a loved one with dementia?

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