Dying Poets Society

Is there beauty in Alzheimerís disease? Yes, say ASU poets who work with dementia patients. But can you be a poet and not know it?

Is it poetry, after all, if you're a poet and don't know it?

Maidi Terry was stuck. The ASU poet had visited Clairbridge -- a Tempe nursing home devoted to caring for people with dementia -- several times last fall and couldn't persuade Lenore to write poetry with her. Lenore, a petite woman with short gray hair, lived in a neat room surrounded by photos of happier, younger times. She was crabby, aloof, unwilling to try.

Karla Elling shows off Alice Mae Lisi¬ís poem ¬ďCloves¬Ē at Juniper Library in Phoenix.
Paolo Vescia
Karla Elling shows off Alice Mae Lisi¬ís poem ¬ďCloves¬Ē at Juniper Library in Phoenix.
The poetry was great, says workshop leader Dan Salontai, but sometimes the sessions were just about having fun and seeing patients laughing and smiling.
Paolo Vescia
The poetry was great, says workshop leader Dan Salontai, but sometimes the sessions were just about having fun and seeing patients laughing and smiling.

"I can't write poetry," she scoffed.

Terry sought advice from one of her professors, Alberto Rios, who suggested giving Lenore bags of spices to elicit memories. That didn't work. He suggested a free-association method he uses in class, so Terry cut photos from magazines and words from crossword puzzles and laid them on the table before Lenore.

"What do you want to write about?" Terry asked.

"Hornets," Lenore said.

"What's good about hornets?"

"They're motherly."

"If hornets weren't insects, what would they be?"

"Kites, clouds, snow."

With a few transition words from Terry, Lenore 's words became a poem. The next time Terry stopped by her room, Lenore was happy to see her, though she didn't know Terry by name. Terry later left town, but Lenore willingly attended two other poets' workshops all spring.

Did Lenore and Terry's other Alzheimer's patients really understand the concept of writing poetry? "Yeah, they did in those momentary discussions," Terry says.

She wrote their poems on cards for them to display in their rooms. They always wanted to give them away.

"Some of them would say, "Send it to my parents.'"


Hornets are like red and purple,
pale purple and white
yellow to bring out the motherly qualities of it --

lemon moon hats of gold,
hornets look like winter's meteors,
kites, clouds and snow.

The simple acts of waking, bathing, dressing and eating breakfast are enough to exhaust the 80- and 90-something residents of Scottsdale Village Square's locked ward. At 10:30 on a recent Thursday morning, most of the two dozen residents in the recreation room are dozing -- propped up in chairs, heads resting on tabletops.

The lights are low in the big room; no one is paying attention to a doll and bassinet in the corner or the activities that go on 12 hours a day at the nursing home.

A white-haired woman in a cardigan, sitting across a table from a slumbering man in a Peanuts sweat shirt, has fallen asleep with her head in a puzzle -- a basket filled with plastic pieces in the bright colors of children's Legos.

Alzheimer's disease, the most common form of dementia, is a puzzle itself. Although the disease was discovered in 1906, today the only certain diagnosis comes through an autopsy, when doctors are able to see the tangles that form in the brain and damage the nerve cell connections. These connections give us control over virtually every intellectual and physical function. Without them, we lose mind and body.

The damage usually begins with short-term memory, then spreads. Eventually, it can actually cause death, as the brain tells the heart to stop beating or the lungs to stop taking in air.

The Alzheimer's Association estimates that four million Americans have the disease: one in 10 people over 65 and nearly half of those over 85. That's a particularly troubling statistic given that there's no cure, and few drugs or other treatments can slow the disease once it reaches the middle and later stages.

The last 12 years of the Alzheimer's patient's life mirror the first 12 years of a child's life, according to William Arnold, a professor of communications at ASU. That is why many Alzheimer's patients end up in the fetal position as they approach death. And thus, the baby doll and the bassinet, the big-piece puzzle.

Arnold studies ways to improve communication in early-stage Alzheimer's patients, hoping to help patients and families recognize what is happening, to know what they can expect and figure out what plans they need to make.

He says it's pointless to focus on notions of creativity in the later stages of the disease, because patients simply don't know what they're doing.

But does it matter for these patients? Is living, or reliving a moment, an act of poetry itself? Must you remember today for something you've created today to have value? And what about the joy of the moment?

When ASU poet Tracy Trefethen led a workshop in 1993 at Scottsdale Village Square, she and her partner used water as a theme: They put out bowls of water to touch and salt water to taste, played a tape of ocean waves and showed the residents artwork depicting water. During the first session, a resident named James suddenly remembered that for much of his life, he had played jazz saxophone on cruise ships. None of the nursing home staff had known.

James sang and wept and spoke. "He said, "Thank you, thank you so much, for helping me to remember this,'" Trefethen recalls. ". . . Not that he needed to remember it the next day or the next hour and carry it forward, but he got in touch with a part of himself, and I think that gave him a little relief."

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