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Published on: December 30, 2014
by Kristine Kane for U.S. News & World Report:
The arts, including poetry and music, are believed to have powerful healing effects for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
People who suffer from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are constantly reminded of the things they may not remember – from what time to take their medications, to what they once did to make a living, to who their own children are.
It’s hard to imagine what that must feel like, but one can surmise it’s not very good. If instead the focus was on what these people can still do, or even discover for the first time, their quality of life would arguably improve. With this in mind, Molly Middleton Meyer, a Dallas, Texas-based journalist, decided to make poems with people suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Meyer’s inspiration comes from personal experience: She lost both her parents to Alzheimer’s disease, one right after the other, at the same time she was going through a divorce. “It was a brutal time, so I reached out for something hopeful,” Meyer says. A self-described “closet poet,” Meyer decided to get a Master of Fine Arts in poetry, and that led her to start Mind’s Eye Poetry, in which she facilitates poetry workshops with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients nationwide. She touts her business as “Rewriting Dementia,” and her mission is to validate the creative capacities of patients and bring them joy in the process. Meyer travels to care facilities throughout the country giving poetry workshops, sometimes establishing long-term relationships with patients. During a workshop, each person contributes at least one line to a group poem – she’s facilitated more than 700 poems this way.
“I think for them it is so freeing; their world is becoming smaller and smaller,” Meyer says. “For them to fly out of their mind to another place and be validated … [They] light up and want to add more [to poems].”
The Healing Power of the Arts
The arts are increasingly validated for their healing effects in the world of medicine. Music, for example, has perhaps the most clinical validation for dementia patients. “We know now that music is definitely joyful,” Meyer says, adding, “Poetry is verbal music.”
Poetry is also nonlinear, which makes it a natural form of expression for people who may naturally free associate. “It’s refreshing to be around people who aren’t afraid to say what they think and are willing to take creative risks,” Meyer says, adding that she’s certainly not advocating for having dementia – although plenty of critics suggest she’s making “puppies and rainbows” out of a terrible condition. Often, the naysayers are caregivers who tend to focus on what’s been lost in a person with Alzheimer’s or dementia, Meyer continues.
Meyer’s technique, on the other hand, focuses on anchoring patients in the present moment, and certain exercises can also trigger memories. She typically brings in artwork and asks workshop attendees to write what they see. People have described Georgia O’Keeffe’s “The Poppies,” for example, as “summertime in Santa Fe” and “a blackbird soaring into a sunset,” Meyer adds.
She also asks questions such as “What does Christmas smell like?” or “How does winter make you feel?” to draw out feelings instead of just sensory perceptions. And she presents people in her workshops with cognitive challenges – for example, asking them not to use the same word twice. “I can see the gears clicking,” she says. “I love it when there’s almost uncomfortable silence. Always the best answers come out of that.”
The Healing Power of Poetry
That’s at least anecdotal proof that a lot is still going on inside the minds of people with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Science is also beginning to probe why the arts bring out this activity. “The arts bypass some of the pathways that are being damaged in Alzheimer’s disease and tap into ones that are not normally utilized,” says Daniel Potts, a neurologist at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. “The brain likes creative acts,” Potts continues. “Creativity taps into emotional memory and the language that’s tied to emotions.”
Potts has experienced the power of the arts firsthand. His father, Lester, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease over a decade ago, and when he began to lose his language function, turned to painting. Lester painted more than 100 watercolors reminiscent of his childhood. “He couldn’t tell you what he was painting, but he was affirmed for being him,” Potts says, “and that gave us comfort.”
When Lester’s condition deteriorated to the point that he had to be admitted to a psychiatric institution, Potts found his own coping mechanism through the arts. On New Year’s Eve in 2005, he woke up in the middle of the night and wrote a poem – his first ever. For a month straight, Potts wrote a poem every night, almost compulsively, he says. “I found great comfort, and I was able to express things I had not expressed.” Mostly, he adds, he expressed an outpouring of gratitude for the life his father had given him.
Potts was so inspired by his experience that he established an initiative called Cognitive Dynamics, which takes art therapy to people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia in and around Tuscaloosa.
As an arts advocate for the American Academy of Neurology, Potts also notes much clinical interest in the healing power of the arts. “People on the front lines are pulling the science and the art together because they are tapping more deeply than most of our therapies,” he says. “We’re going to have to tap deeply into the spiritual and emotional to make a difference in our care.”
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