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Poetry As A Tool In Dementia Care

Lauren Silverman

There is no cure for Alzheimer’s. But there are people trying to make a difference for the millions of Americans who have the disease. Molly Meyer helps people living with Alzheimer’s rediscover lost memories, and create new ones through poetry.

Poet Molly Meyer comes to workshops prepared. In addition to the standard – paper and pens – she has a suitcase filled with tchotchkes.


There’s a large spinning globe and an old quilt, a neon green plastic cup and a black hatbox from the 20s.

As Meyer places everything on the table she talks with a dozen people gathered around a table in the memory care unit at CC Young retirement community in Dallas. Many of them have dementia or Alzheimer’s. Which means they’re known for what they don’t remember, rather than what they do remember.

By bringing out these trinkets, Meyer is doing something magical.

Dusting Off Old Memories

As Meyer holds up a Hawaiian grass skirt, she asks, “what does this make you think of?” She’s trying to trigger memories with props.

Today’s theme is travel.

Credit Lauren Silverman / KERA News
A variety of trinkets Meyer brought with her to CC Young to help inspire creative writing among patients with dementia.

“What is the first thing you think about when you think about London?” she asks.

A woman calls out “art galleries, shopping!” A tall man who’s new says “crowded streets.”

In Meyer’s workshops – she’s worked in memory care units across the country – there are no wrong answers. When she asks about flags, a man hesitates before recalling a time when he saw sailors waving flags from tall buildings…he thinks.

“Have you thought about that much? Meyer asks him.  “That’s a beautiful image and I want to put it in our poem.”

Meyer is a trained poet, but the idea to use writing to bring joy to people with Alzheimer’s came from personal experience.

Selfless, And Selfish Motivation

Both of Meyer’s parents had Alzheimer’s and died just a year apart, her father in 2011 and her mother in 2012.

“Like many people who are dealing with a loved one with Alzheimer’s,” Meyer says, “It is absolutely overwhelming.”

As her parent’s memories declined, Meyer found it hard for to empathize. Instead of trying to relate with them, she became frustrated.

“I didn’t write poems with my parents and I have that regret,” she says. “But I regret not taking the time to just sit and ask questions.”

Credit Laura Saxon
Molly Meyer at a poetry workshop at Arbor House in Lewisville, TX

Meyer says she sees an incredible amount of creativity in patients with Alzheimer’s. “People who think outside the box.”

And although she doesn’t know if her workshops are therapeutic, she says the results are impressive.

“I’m not a doctor, but I see it every day. I see people wake up, be invigorated, engage with the person next to them and I think that has to be beneficial in some way,” Meyer says.

Poetry, More Than Entertainment?

Most Alzheimer’s patients live 8 to 10 years after diagnosis. And one of the last things to decline is language. Dr. Denise Park, a neuroscientist at the University of Texas at Dallas, says that makes poetry a powerful tool to tap into old memories.

“I can’t say without scientific evidence that it is improving memory or competence, however it seems like important work.”

Important because it’s making people feel competent about their memories – bringing joy, and returning some dignity.

“And that’s what we should be focusing on at this time,” Park says. “Until we have better interventions in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.”

Read two poems from Meyer’s workshops: 

Inside My Treasure Chest

You’ll find… An old piece of jewelry, a graduation tassel, a knitted Christmas stocking, a letterman’s jacket—blue and gold, and a thousand pictures of steam locomotives. Inside my heart’s treasure chest, you’ll find my friends, my family, and love.

–Ed, Cleto, Marion, Margaret B., Barbara, Bob. S., Margaret A., Mervin, Ned, Clara, Carolyn, Gerald, John, Jesse, Ginger, & “K”

A Waltz Of Light

Crimson circles, indigo bubbles float on an abstract sea. Toys in an attic, a broken mirror reflects a secret staircase. Christmas ornaments, a jitterbug of color sparks a waltz of light.

–Jim, Jean, Maury, Elizabeth, Gail, Ed, Virginia B., Betty P., Doris, Joe, Nancy, Virginia M., Bob, & Betty

Belmont Senior Living, 8/13/14

Lauren Silverman was the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She was also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine  Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.