Could poetic therapy be the latest weapon in the fight against dementia?

Could poetic therapy be the latest weapon in the fight against dementia?

According to the Alzheimer's Society, in the UK alone there are over 850,000 people currently living with the effects of dementia. This figure is set to rise dramatically in the coming years as the baby boomer generation head towards old age and it is estimated that by 2020 this figure will be over one million. By 2050 it is projected to reach an all-time high of two million. But, initiatives in dementia therapy are repeatedly proving that the quality of life for those with the disease can be improved - and surprisingly, there isn’t a drug in sight. So could poetry in fact be a useful, approachable and cost effective longterm weapon in the fight against dementia?

Dementia is the umbrella term used to describe a collection of different brain disorders marked by progressively declining brain function. Alzheimer’s is the most common individual form of dementia, accounting for 62 per cent of cases. A terminal condition, the effects of dementia cannot be reversed as bit by bit your brain forgets, quite literally, how to perform the functions that keep you alive, often beginning with a loss of short term memory, speech and comprehension. Given the number of people that it affects, it is fair to consider dementia a national health crisis, and one that the government are, at present, not doing enough to tackle. As a country, we spend just £90 per patient per year on the condition - that is less than on cancer, strokes or cardiovascular disease, despite the condition being the leading cause of disability in older age. Quite often, with nurses and healthcare assistants stretched, it is left to charities and individuals to fill gaps in care.

Among the first proponents of the use of poetic therapy with dementia patients was the Warwickshire-based charity Kissing it Better, who take school children into care homes and hospitals to read aloud to residents. While it is poetry that commonly takes precedence, literature is also used to awaken memory, with volunteers ensuring that they respect people’s wishes about what they want to hear. Jill Fraser, CEO and co-founder of the charity, recalled the positive impact that one 16-year-old reading Winnie the Pooh had on a particularly distressed dementia patient in hospital:

“Staring first at him, and then his large book, the lady suddenly stopped shouting. He looked at her and smiled. And she smiled back. He offered her the book but she didn’t take it. We watched from outside the bay as she slowly moved closer.

After a few moments, we saw them both move back to her bedside. She sat down.  Harry pulled up a chair. Gently he began to read. She looked mesmerised.

Beside me, her son had tears in his eyes.  Gently he whispered: ‘That’s my mum as I want to remember her. I didn’t think I’d see her look like that again. All it took was a simple story.’”

Multiple reasons have been suggested for the success of this type of dementia therapy. One such explanation is the relationship between the disease and longterm memory; a key feature of all forms of dementia is that longterm memory takes longer to be affected than short term memory, and as a consequence is more easily accessible. In previous generations, school children not only read more regularly but quite often learnt poetry by heart, so the stories and poems of their younger years are, whether consciously or not, etched into their minds. Unlocking these memories allows individuals to be transported back to a time when they possessed more control over their lives. As Fraser explains of the patient mentioned above: “She may not have recognised her son as a 50-year-old man, but her emotions were still strong. As I watched the scene unfold, I was convinced she was gently flirting with Harry as she listened to the familiar words.”

In general, poetry appears to be more successful than prose in assisting people with dementia and Andrew Motion, who served as Poet Laureate from 1999 to 2009, highlights the rhythmic qualities that poetry possesses as crucial to its effectiveness. In an interview with Dr Kevin Harvey, Assistant Professor in Sociolinguistics at the University of Nottingham, he recalled his own experience of working with Kissing it Better:

“[I] was always astonished by the effect of these little performances. The primitive appeal of rhythm and rhyme was able to cut through or across all sorts of impediments to full consciousness, and to release and revive other poems that the patients had lurking in their memories.”

“It seems as though the brains of our species are hard-wired to retain and enjoy the characteristic features of poetry (rhyme, rhyme, language that does not aspire to spell a single exact proposition).”

With the scheme having proven such a success, Kissing it Better are now working in NHS trusts all over the country, as well as introducing other initiatives to improve the quality of life for people with dementia. These include having beauty students carry out treatments such as hand massages in order to encourage conversation and preserve individuals' sense of self-worth at the same time. Other schemes being run by charities throughout the UK include using music to release memory, residential trips that allow people to take part in activities that may have previously been off-limits, and even (gentle) aerobics classes.

A study in the British Medical Journal has shown that fewer people are being diagnosed with dementia each year, a decline thought to be a result of improving diet and lifestyle. The predicted rise in those living with the condition will instead be caused by increased life expectancy. In the meantime, charities and individuals will undoubtedly continue to work hard to support those living with dementia and the use of poetry as a powerful memory aid demonstrates that there is hope for those experiencing long term brain conditions, even when resources are stretched. As Andrew Motion puts it: “If I were Secretary of State at the Department of Health I’d invest in Kissing It Better and other such organisations (there are a few others, aren’t there): a great deal could be achieved on a comparatively small budget.”