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National Poetry Month: Poetry and Seniors

Sarah Stevenson
By Sarah StevensonApril 20, 2015

There’s no better time than National Poetry Month to celebrate the power of poems that brings seniors and the community together. Read about one poetry center’s efforts to support its local seniors and caregivers.

Poetry is a uniquely human creation. Harnessing words to create beautiful mental images is something we all have the ability to do, and it can be a powerfully therapeutic activity to write poems. Even simply reading or hearing poems can spark feelings and memories, and studies have shown that poetry can have a range of mental and physical health benefits. Learn more about the fledgling nonprofit organization Modesto-Stanislaus Poetry Center — aka “MoSt Poetry” — and how it is working to bring those benefits to seniors and others throughout the community.

Bringing Poetry to Local Seniors

According to Gillian Wegener, who is board president of the Modesto-Stanislaus Poetry Center as well as Modesto’s current Poet Laureate, MoSt has been involved in organizing poetry readings at senior centers since the organization’s inception a few years ago.

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“Bringing poetry to seniors was one of our first goals,” Wegener says. In MoSt’s first month, they did a reading at local senior community The Stratford at Beyer Park. The results were undeniably positive, and some residents were even inspired to share their own favorite poetry. “When we were finished reading, the ladies who were in attendance recited some of the poems they knew as girls. It was very moving.” Since then, MoSt members have gone on to do more readings at The Stratford, as well as Modesto Senior Center, Standiford Place, and other locations.

One of the most interesting aspects of these readings, Wegener says, is the fact that the audience members don’t have to be poetry fans to appreciate the poems: “Although residents sometimes said they weren’t fans of poetry, they did enjoy hearing poetry, especially that with which they were able to make personal connections to grandchildren or pets, and to those poems that were already familiar to them.”

Wegener continues: “They even requested poetry, like Poe’s ‘Annabelle Lee.’ When people think they don’t like or can’t relate to poetry, hearing it often helps them relate to it on a different, more personal level.”

Poetry and its Benefits to the Mind and Body

Poetry, as it turns out, can be extremely rewarding and cathartic. Studies have shown that people with serious illnesses or long-term stress may benefit from writing poetry as a way to come to terms with their feelings and experiences, as well as improving physical measures of stress. Indeed, the growing field of poetry therapy has looked at the ways in which expressive writing can have therapeutic effects not only on stress, mood and job performance, but also on immune health and other physiological measures.

It’s no surprise, then, that senior communities nearly always provide the opportunity for residents to engage in creative activities. The Modesto-Stanislaus Poetry Center sees itself as taking a unique role in bringing the creative act of poetry to local seniors, who might not always be able to get out and attend poetry readings. Bringing the poetry to them is an important way to connect seniors with the community — and vice versa.

“We think that the people in senior residences and care facilities enjoy having community members come in with events like the poetry reading,” Wegener says.

“It engages them and helps them to become involved. We strive to treat people with the respect and love they deserve — reading poems that are already familiar to them is part of this, and making connections between seniors and the community is extremely important.”

Tom Portwood, another MoSt board member, agrees, and says he has made so many personal connections through poetry readings. One of his favorite memories is of reading “Casey at the Bat” at Standiford Place, and having a resident respond: “Tom, that’s my favorite poem!”

Poetry and Alzheimer’s Disease

Favorite poems from childhood can have a particularly effective role in sparking memories, and reading poetry has been proven to enhance the quality of life in people with dementia, as well as providing emotional support for caregivers.

MoSt member Carol Miller, who has been working with the Alzheimer’s/Dementia Support Center, Inc. (ADSC) in Modesto, California, since her husband’s diagnosis of Early-Onset Alzheimer’s, wrote her first poem about Alzheimer’s just a few months later — and kept on going.

“I read the poem at the next caregiver support group, where members were so touched by its message that they suggested I keep writing and sharing as my journey progressed with my husband,” Miller says. Since then, she has been incredibly active and involved with the Alzheimer’s and caregiving communities, through poetry and in many other ways. “During the next three years, I self-published three books, from which all the donations are given to the ADSC.” In the course of her efforts to raise Alzheimer’s awareness, she has read her poems at the Alzheimer’s Association Walk to End Alzheimer’s in 2013 and 2014, as well as organizing an “Art of Caregiving” workshop led by Frances Kakugawa, herself an author, poet and caregiver.

Miller has experienced firsthand the myriad of ways in which poetry can help foster understanding connections between people with Alzheimer’s, their families, and caregivers: “Caregivers are greatly supported by poetry that speaks to the joys and challenges of living beside a loved one with Alzheimer’s,” she says. “People in the early stages of Alzheimer’s like to read to understand what their caregiver faces. Poems written from the point of view of the person with Alzheimer’s gives others a glimpse into their reality.”

In places like Modesto and countless other North American cities, poems are helping to bring seniors into the community — and bringing the community to its seniors. Indeed, poetry can bring people together from all walks of life, break down social boundaries, and help us reconsider the way we conceive of illness and disability. Poetry can even heal. So if you haven’t yet found a way to celebrate National Poetry Month this year, why not share some favorite poems with the seniors in your life?

We want to hear from our readers about the topic of poetry and seniors. Have you been involved in reading or writing poetry with seniors? Share your stories in the comments below.

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Sarah Stevenson
Sarah Stevenson
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