Molly Middleton Meyer
The impact of creativity on people living with dementia is slowly transforming the way they are cared for. Creative activities have been shown to not only prevent or delay the onset of dementia, but they can also reduce depression, agitation, and isolation by providing the power of choice and decision making.
We’ve all seen the videos of non-verbal adults with dementia awakening when music from their youth is played. Researchers say this dramatic transformation is the result of musical memories being stored in areas of the brain that are not affected. Watching films and reading books from their youth can have a similar, positive impact. For these reasons, it’s a good idea to ask your spouse or parents to make a playlist of their favorite music, films, and books. It can dramatically improve the quality of their life in the years ahead.
One area less studied but that is now producing impressive results is a poetry facilitation process developed by Molly Middleton Meyer, a memory care expert and advocate for those living with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. “The first time I did this, the caregivers stood there with their mouths open,” recalls Molly. “They saw people do and say things that they didn’t know were possible.”
We sat in on one of Molly’s facilitations to witness the impact firsthand. After warmly greeting each of her “resident poets,” the session takes flight. Molly says, “I love birds, don’t you?” “Oh yes!” answers one of the residents. “They can fly!” says another. “You know what …?” Molly continues, “I’ve got some items that remind me of birds. May I show them to you?”
With that, she begins pulling objects from a large bag and sharing each of the treasures she unveils. There’s a birdcage, a nest, a peacock feather, a stuffed toy owl and a bird with a long red tail. Everyone is encouraged to touch each one as Molly’s questions slowly awaken their imaginations. “Look closely at this nest. What is it made of?” “Sticks!” blurts one woman. “Exactly! Isn’t it amazing that they collect sticks and pieces of paper to make a safe home for their babies?”
This is an important aspect of Molly’s process, and one now endorsed by The Museums Association, which maintains that when people see, handle, or discuss objects in a museum’s collection, it triggers memories and stimulates conversation. Some forward-thinking museums now take collections into residential memory care settings and the results have been encouraging.
But handling and discussing objects is only the beginning of Molly’s process. She celebrates every comment and gains their trust by making it clear that there are no wrong answers. In many ways, wrong answers have defined their lives since first being diagnosed. Many people living with dementia are easily frustrated and quickly withdraw from fears of inadequacy or embarrassment.
“May I read you a poem about birds?” Molly asks. “It’s one of my favorites.” She reads a short poem and says, as if thinking the thought for the first time, “You know what? Let’s write our own poem about birds! I’ll help, but it will be your words, your poem. I know your poem will be even better than the one we just heard.” “I don’t think I’ve ever written a poem,” someone says. “I don’t want to,” adds another. “Let’s try,” encourages Molly. “It’s fun and you’ll be amazed. It’s kind of magical.” Intrigued, they agree.
Molly is using sensory objects in combination with poetry recitation to stimulate long-forgotten memories and flashes of imagination. “I start with an idea and get the train moving, but you never really know where it’s going to end up,” she says with a smile. “We were doing a poem about the moon recently and someone thought I said ‘mule.’ That sparked a memory. So, we were off and running with a poem about mules. Sometimes, you just have to jump on board and enjoy the ride.”
Molly uses each object that she’s shared, displaying them on a table in front of her poets, as a springboard for creative expression. “What do you think this bird is doing? What is she drinking?” The answers come slowly at first, but Molly waits patiently, encouraging, directing, and inspiring. “Good word! Oh, that’s interesting! I love that!” As she prompts, she records all the words, phrases, and even gestures to construct a poem on the spot. In just a couple of moments, without so much as a slight pause, she announces: “I think you’ve written a poem! May I read it to you? These are your words, your poem, and your title.”
A bluebird takes a sip of clean, fresh rainwater, enjoys a quick bath.
He shakes the water from his feathers, feels alive.
“Beautiful,” says one group member. “We did that! “Read it Again!” “I heard my word!” the others offer excitedly. The process continues and several other poems are created.
Molly holds the attention of a group in the advanced stages of the disease, for an hour. That’s not an easy thing to do. More importantly, she has given them a sense of pride and satisfaction. “That was really great,” says one man who hasn’t spoken in weeks. They pose for a group picture and slowly leave the room, smiling. One man asks Molly for a dance, and she accepts. “I love to dance almost as much as I love writing poems.”
The executive director of one of the nation’s most progressive memory-care centers observed the entire session. “They were nervous at first because many recognize their limitations and they didn’t know what to expect,” she says. “They learned right away that there were no wrong answers. They were so engaged; they loved the fact that Molly listened to them and that they were 100 percent successful in what they did. They were thrilled.”
Molly formats and types the poems and gives them to the care centers, where they’re displayed in the residents’ rooms, highlighted in newsletters, and shared with family members. “I try to think like a daughter,” she says. “When residents start telling stories, I write them down to share with their families. One of my poets named Barbara was nearly non-verbal. I noticed her smiling with a beautiful, far-away look and asked what she was thinking about. ‘The beach,’ she answered. ‘My sweet escape.’”
Barbara died just days later, and Molly went to her funeral. “I told her daughter, ‘I loved your mother. Do you know what were her last words to me? ‘The beach, my sweet escape.’” Barbara’s daughter was moved to tears because she and her mother had enjoyed many wonderful beach getaways. “It was comforting to know that even in her final days, her mother was still connected in a deep and meaningful way to their times together.”
Molly lost both of her parents to Alzheimer’s in 2011 and 2012. “I became increasingly frustrated with much of their therapy, which I came to believe only dehumanizes those for whom so much is already being lost.” She says, “I was determined to find a way to stimulate their memories and spark their creativity in an engaging, dignifying way.”
Molly has found purpose in her own pain and says her work is a way of honoring her mother and father. “I look in their faces and see my mom and my dad,” she says. “I meet the most amazing people. It’s such a gift to only know them now. I don’t know them as people who have lost something. I know them as people who are hungry for stimulation, hungry for fun and hungry for love.”
Molly is helping lead a long overdue transformation among those who are caring for people living with Alzheimer’s. It’s no longer about simply keeping them safe. We’ve learned that those in even the most advanced stages of dementia can experience love and joy. And it’s our obligation, our honor, our privilege to help them experience both. “Everybody says they’re going away, and they are,” Molly says. “You can’t pull them back. You can only go with them. Live in the moment with them and make that moment as joyous as possible. Yes, your relationship changes, but you still have the power to bring joy, meaning, and love to their lives. Even those who no longer recognize their family can still be happy. They can still have a quality of life.”
Molly Middleton Meyer travels nationally to conduct facilitations, workshops, and training programs. She is also available for speaking engagements. For more information on Mind’s Eye Poetry visit mindseyepoetry.com.