Poetry aids memory… and more

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Can poetry ease the tedium of lockdown as well as boost brain and memory?

Although there are many studies that indicate that poetry can help boost memory in people with dementia (see here) in one nursing home, a chaplain is using poetry as a springboard to much more for many more people.

Since the end of 2019, the Rev. Hugh Vincent Dyer was a frequent visitor to a nursing home’s residents and ministering to the Catholics among the 360 residents. At the pandemic’s start, he moved in to prevent the possibility of transmitting anything to them. But it was a chance conversation with one resident that a gave him an idea.

 

Poetry in the air 

During a chat, as recounted in The Federalist, one resident recalled the pleasure of his long ago classes with the poet W.H. Auden while a student at Columbia. “Poetry can do a lot to jog the residents’ memories,” Dyer said. With that thought in mind, he got creative.

Using the nursing home’s internal PA system, Father Dyer broadcasts what he calls “Cultural Miscellany” twice a week. The idea is simple. He considers a variety of topics or subjects and then comes up with creative ways to link them with poetry and the arts.

Topics need not be ‘weighty” or serious. In a recent “Cultural Miscellany” talk, Father Dyer focused on trees, and described their  relationship to culture and scripture. He used “A Ballad of Trees and the Master” a short poem by Sidney Lanier (1842-1881), as a jumping-off point for his comments.

Usually his poetic “jump-offs” are short poems, but sometimes they’re childhood stories everyone remembers.  Reading “The Builders” (link here) a retelling of “The Three Little Pigs,” for example, was an unexpected way of considering the virtues of hard work and persistence.

One poem Dyer shared during his program that proved to be particularly popular with the residents was “The Plain Facts” by British poet Ruth Pitter (1897-1992), which talks about the joy of living, making friends, and smiling. “People took to this poem just before Covid really hit,” recalls Dyer.

The communication isn’t all one way: He shared “Simon the Cyrenian Speaks” (link here) by Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen (1903-1946) after one of the residents, a retired teacher from Harlem, asked him to read it on his program.

 

Movies in the mix 

Other cultural experiences are likewise meaningful. Father Dyer introduced movies, broadcast through the home’s CCTV system to individual rooms. Favorites include “Show Boat,” classic Bing Crosby film, “Going My Way,” a concert by the late jazz pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams,  and Kirov Ballet performance of “Swan Lake.”

“For me, [providing cultural outlets to residents]was just an acknowledgement that our elderly have lived in this city for many years,” Fr. Dyer said. “And even though the museums and other cultural institutions are currently closed or no longer accessible to them, they can still have access to culture.”

The whole profile can be read at the Federalist website.



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