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Poetry Reaches Past the Fog of Alzheimers

  • Paul Ingles

Families and caregivers of Alzheimer's patients are always looking for ways to make meaningful moments for their loved ones who are struggling with the disease. In New Mexico, poet Gary "Mex" Glazner has found that poetry can engage some patients in a rewarding way.

At precisely 10:30 on a brilliant spring Santa Fe morning, poet Gary Glazner walks into Sierra Vista room with a book of poems in one hand and a bunch of yellow daffodils in the other, and greets everyone with a hearty "So how're you guys doing?"

Although he's been here twice before in the last 2 months, most of the 20 senior Alzheimer's patients seated in a circle don't remember him.

He offers one of the women a daffodil. She takes the flower with wide eyes and a smile. Mr. Glazner offers flowers to all, but one woman keeps her arms folded and refuses him. She stares deeply into his face, looking for something familiar. The poet just grins, lays a flower on her chair, takes his seat on the circle and opens up his poems.

"To celebrate spring coming on," he announces, "I'm going to read Daffodils by William Wordsworth," and he begins the poem. "I wandered lonely as a cloud/ That floats on high o'er vales and hills/ When all at once I saw a crowd/ A host, of golden daffodils…"

A moment later, he jumps up and dances around the circle, trying to make eye contact with each resident, repeating the last couplet over and over. "…And then my heart with pleasure fills/ And dances with the daffodils/ …" One man in a cardigan appears startled, as if awakened from a dream. Some, though, giggle and pick up on his rhythm - bouncing their flowers up and down in time. A few keep their eyes closed and scowl.

Gary Glazner says he uses rhythm and movement in his poetry readings in coffee houses and theatres too, but it's especially useful with this audience. "You're moving closer to them, you're touching them, you're engaging with them," he explains. "You know, you have them fading in and out of consciousness so you have to work that much harder."

Mr. Glazner has been connecting with Alzheimer's patients like this since 1997, when he won a grant to do poetry readings in senior centers. He remembers the day he got hooked. "I was reading Longfellow's poem, and there was a guy in the class who was pretty much out of it. He wasn't able to participate. (His) head was down. And I said, 'I shot an arrow in the air' and he looked up and said, 'And where it lands I know not where…' And it was just a marvelous moment for me, and for the whole group."

His poetry sessions at Sierra Vista began with a phone call to Ruth Dennis, the facility's recreation director. "He called me, kind of out of the blue," she recalls. But the idea of regular poetry readings made sense to her for Alzheimer's care, for one reason. "It makes a moment in time really enjoyable. Time kind of blurs with Alzheimer's. Time sort of becomes this really ambiguous thing. Alzheimer's treatment, if it's good treatment, is a Zen kind of experience. It's very much being really focused on just being present."

Meanwhile, Gary Glazner has moved on to a work by what he calls "that very famous poet, Anonymous." And he proceeds to read it, to scattered laughter from the residents. "Do you carrot all for me?/ My heart beets for you/With your turnip nose/And your radish face/ You're a peach!/ If we cantaloupe/ lettuce marry/ We'd make a swell pear."

Almost apologetically, Gary Glazner says he might be getting as much good feeling out of these encounters as the patients themselves. And the poet's work is getting more attention elsewhere. Recently, he's been invited to visit Alzheimer's centers in 5 other states. He's also about to publish a book of poems that Alzheimer's families and caregivers can use to reach this special audience of poetry fans.

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