Rhymes for Reason

Alzheimer's patients 'come alive' with poetry's help

The first sign of a problem was five years ago, when Billie McKinney, then 83, was involved in a fender bender while driving in the wrong direction on the Pacific Coast Highway in Long Beach, California.

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The mishap wasn’t serious, thankfully, but the diagnosis was. McKinney was suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

“Everyone called her Silly Billie because she had such a great sense of humor,” said son David McKinney, 54, using the past tense, though his mother still survives. Part of her does, anyway.

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McKinney, a film and television location scout from Santa Monica, told LifeZette how the disease progressed to the point that his mother needed full-time care within two years.

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Now 88, Billie McKinney lives in an assisted living facility in Palos Verdes, where her son always has to reintroduce himself when he visits two or three times a week.

In spending time with his mother, David McKinney stumbled on a portal to her memory that remains. While his mom was dealing with a skin condition, “I started using the limerick that she used to tell me; ‘There once was a girl from Natchez, whose clothes were always in patches…’ and then she kind of lit up,” he recalled.

“When I got to the last line, she finished, ‘…when I itch it I scratch it!’ She was so happy to deliver the final line. She couldn’t remember the rest of it, but there was some associative things she was able to recall,” McKinney said.

The memory phenomenon McKinney discovered is a growing area of therapy for Alzheimer’s patients and others suffering from dementia. Music and poetry seem to stimulate emotional areas of the brain, unlocking certain memories and eliciting joy associated with them.

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Gary Glazner, founder and executive director of the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project based in Brooklyn, New York, said he knew virtually nothing about Alzheimer’s in 1997 when he began reciting poems to patients with dementia near his home in Northern California.

Music and poetry seem to stimulate emotional areas of the brain, unlocking certain memories and eliciting joy associated with them.

“The moment of inspiration for me is there’s a guy in the group, his head was down, he wasn’t participating at all, seemingly unaware of his surroundings,” the professional poet told LifeZette.

“I read the Longfellow poem ‘I shot an arrow in the air…’, and his eyes shot open and he said, ‘…it fell to earth, I know not where.’ So suddenly he was able to participate, and it was just a really powerful moment for me as a person.”

Glazner was inspired enough to develop a program that engaged patients through poetry. Using a call-response method of group therapy, he tours facilities nationwide and has presented internationally in Australia and Germany, among other countries.

Glazner and other members of the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project make about 200 presentations a year at group homes, medical conferences and other speaking engagements.

“People are talking more, they’re laughing, having fun,” Glazner said of the results. “It’s really about creating moments of joy with them.”

Scientific research he’s compiled includes a 2007 German study that shows that listening to classic poetry read aloud lowers stress levels in normal people. Glazner told LifeZette that newer research from doctors in New Jersey recently submitted for publication explores the effect on caregivers when dementia patients respond to emotional stimuli like music and poetry.

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“It shows there can be a tremendous shift in the attitude of doctors and caregivers when the patient responds, and they see them as more human,” Glazner said.

“When you witness that in a person, where they come alive, it’s just so heartwarming and gratifying,” Deborah O’Connor, vice president of programs and education for the Orange County, California, chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, told LifeZette. “You see that the person is still there, and they’re still contributing, and they can still find pleasure.”

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