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Dr Kevin Harvey on Poetry and Dementia

16 October 17 words: Gav Squires
illustrations: Kirsty Black

Dr. Kevin Harvey is an Assistant Professor in Sociolinguistics over at the University of Nottingham. Alongside a group of his students, he’s been reading poetry with dementia sufferers in care homes across Nottingham, with some astounding results...

 

Over the last two years, Kevin Harvey has been going into various care homes in and around Nottingham and reading poetry out loud to the people there. The feedback has been positive, with Kevin describing reports of “a difference in people’s well-being, their moods and their cognitive capacities through engaging with poems.”

Why do these sessions work? “Poetry, in particular, works in various ways,” explains Kevin. “I think one of the key things is sharing the experience of reading simultaneously within a group.”

There’s something to be said for the use of poems, rather than prose, too. “The texture that lodges in the mind can activate parts of the brain which other forms of text maybe can’t. Poems are things that people reach for in difficult times. They might not necessarily admit that, but I think there’s something healing and urgent about poems, especially in desperate times,” Kevin states.

Each of Kevin’s sessions last between forty minutes and an hour, include between eight and ten poems, and can “also segue into a little bit of a sing-song as well, if people are in the right frame of mind.” In this type of shared reading event, people come together in a designated place and they have an aesthetic, social and therapeutic experience.

The social aspect is hugely important here, and there’s an emphasis on how crucial meaningful activities can be in helping preserve someone’s personhood. The shared reading can be a fantastic opportunity for those in the care homes to spend time interacting with each other. Kevin describes there being “something very wonderful and intimate about the actual reading aloud of the poem, people hearing it together and then responding to it. Enjoyment is the watchword here.”

Dementia is often associated with the loss of the self, but shared reading can help bring that self back to the fore. “Moods, attitudes, and memories come flooding back,” says Kevin. “People are re-animated and, momentarily, are themselves again. This mood can subsist for a period of time. So, it seems – to put it crudely – that the brain is hardwired, like it is for music, for metrical designs, and even the ravages of dementia can't destroy that area of the brain. That kind of mnemonic feature of poetry and nursery rhyme continues to exist.”

Participants often have particularly strong reactions to poems, including a woman who, upon hearing Silver by Walter de la Mare, comes to life. “When she hears that poem, she takes over and reads it with such delight and relish, it’s like she’s back in her early twenties. She’s word perfect and people applaud when she has finished. It’s very moving, and an astonishing thing to witness.”

It seems that poems people are already familiar with receive the best reaction, especially in cases where the poems were once learned by heart, at school, for example. One of the poems Kevin often uses is Wordsworth’s Daffodils, and although he’s read it aloud many times, he always finds a new level of meaning from the people listening. “They often join in and start reciting it as well. I just step back and let them carry on.

“When you’re doing this, what happens is that the dementia disappears, and the person comes to the fore,” explains Kevin. “This is a social activity, and it can often trigger memories. You have some astonishing narratives told by people when they hear a poem about their experiences when they were younger. I wonder, if they had not heard that poem, whether that memory would have remained hidden.”

The safety net of success found with more well-known poems hasn’t stopped Kevin from experimenting with newer works. “One person I work with is well versed in poetry, and I like to introduce him to new poems. As I read, he follows and then reads aloud himself,” Kevin tells me about a gentleman with advanced dementia. “What’s interesting is that when I introduce him to a poem he’s not familiar with, he’s still able to maintain an awareness of the timbre and, if you like, melody of the words. He’s not reading in an analytical voice; there’s a real nuance and understanding. It’s that poetic mood that’s survived, even with poems that I’m convinced he’s never seen before.” To top it off, Kevin says he’s become more lucid and conversational around the poems, too.

The next steps for this project are all about expansion. Kevin now has a number of students in the School of English that go out into care homes and read to patients. “When the students first go in and spend time with the folks there, they can start to talk about things they haven’t really talked about before,” adds Kevin. “There was one gentleman who had suffered a stroke and didn’t say much at all. After a while, he started to regain his language, and started to interact more with the students. The staff were astonished.”

The inter-generational mix is a valuable experience for the students too, who get a lot out of meeting the residents and learning about their stories. “It’s just a matter of getting them together”, concludes Kevin. “There are so many opportunities, and ideally, I would like it to become more extensive because people get so much value out of it.”

Kevin and his team of students are undertaking some fascinating research, and it seems, as Andrew Motion once said, we really are “hard-wired to rhyme and rhythm.” 

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