Why poetry works for people living with dementia

By Julie Bourla. Published on 13/5/2020

Julie Bourla discusses how poetry is an excellent way of connecting people, and has shown itself to be a powerful approach to reconnecting with people who are having difficulty communicating.

Poetry is an invaluable creative outlet for everyone involved, whether you are the person living with a cognitive challenge, their carer, or their loved one. Being able to express yourself though poetry is a healthy and safe opportunity to express emotions that may otherwise be difficult to deal with.

When a family member has reached the stage where they are having trouble remembering people, names and places, starting a conversation can be a bit daunting. Worrying about how to connect can even put people off visiting as often. A story or a poem can be an enjoyable way of sharing something together and a nice opening for easing into conversation.

Poetry can change the atmosphere in a room and the emotions of those in it amazingly quickly and subtly. A peaceful poem can have a calming effect or you may find something light or funny will lift the mood.

Poems are useful for triggering reminiscence and a valuable tool for unlocking memories and emotions. Many seniors will have studied and learnt poems by rote in their younger years and this can be a pleasant revelation when they join in with a poem they recognise. Other poems may have special memories because they were read by parents or grandparents in childhood, or by romantic partners in years gone by.

Many old poems, such as war poems, may reach deep into a persons history and trigger long term memories. Although all memories are not going to be happy often having an outlet to share their story and emotions can be a very good thing.

For some with dementia poetry is their gateway to communication. It can help with vocabulary, speech, confidence and interaction. It makes people feel useful and gives them a feeling of having a place in society. 

Creating a poetry group is a nice way of building confidence and creating a fellowship, whether it be reading out other peoples poetry or writing and reading their own.

If you are working with a group you may like to make an occasion out of your poetry time. Maybe choose a theme for the poems and get people to dress up for the session. This could be this simple, or you could make it even more of an event with a longer preparation time for everyone to make decorations, write poems etc.

One nice example I have heard of is using the poem Trees by Joyce Kilmer, and passing around leaves and small branches as the poem is read.
Another idea is using daffodils in spring (or use artificial) with the Wordsworth poem I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.


By Joyce Kilmer

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed
Against the earth's sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.


I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud
By William Wordsworth

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;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Mindjig Reads

Mindjig offers two sets of original poetry which are easy to read, are excellent for connecting people and are on topics which easily lead to conversation and more sharing. These are printed on tear-proof material and are in sets of 5 sheets which makes them handy to share around. Click the links below to purchase from our website.

Animals with Personality - this is a collection of fun uplifting poems about clever animals and observations on their behaviour. Those who have owned pets in the past may well recognise some of these ratbags.

Beautiful Nature - These are peaceful beautiful scenic poems which can help create a calm mood. There are a couple featuring New Zealand scenery which can be a good start to conversation also. 


About the author

Julie Bourla is a co-owner of the online store, Mindjig.co.nz. Mindjig offers gifts and activities for people living with dementia or brain injury. Her husband, Jonathan, is an activities coordinator in a secure dementia unit.

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