Poetry project

First things first—what is the project?

It’s poetry facilitation, which in essence, is a guided conversation that leads to creating new poems. It’s fun, creative, social, non-threatening (no right or wrong answers), meaningful and mentally stimulating. In this project, I have been working with groups of older people.

In a typical session, we begin by reading poems aloud. The poems range from the well-known poems that most people remember learning at school to modern poems, with a leavening of nonsense. The poems lead to conversation. During the conversation I take notes and after the session I put together a poem or group of poems using the words of the participants. The highlight of the process is taking these poems back to the group at the next session.

So, it’s reminiscence?

Not exactly. Reminiscence is a part of what happens, but our conversations don’t rely exclusively on activating memory. Our conversation topics are broad enough for people to respond however they choose, and that might be with memories or it might be with opinions, or observations, or what people like or dislike.

What are the poems like?

They’re great! They’re broad-ranging, touching, insightful and often witty. You can see some of them below. One of the things participants say is that sharing the poems they create helps them get to know each other better. I use the words of the participants and I don’t add anything. Because everyone has their own way of expressing themselves, the poems often give a real sense of the individuals.

Why did you start doing this?

Some years ago, when my mother was still alive and was in dementia-level residential care, I attended a meeting for residents’ family members when activities were discussed. One woman said her mother loved poetry, and asked whether poetry could be included in the activities offered. Someone else endorsed the comment and I thought that it would be something that my poetry-loving mother would enjoy. Nothing happened.

When researching the book I wrote about my mother’s experience, I discovered that there are projects in other countries where poetry is used with older people, and especially with people with dementia. I couldn’t find anything similar in New Zealand, and could see no reason why it couldn’t be done here. I’ve found that it works just as well with a wide range of older people regardless of cognitive functioning.