Poetry for seniors: 5 Ways verse can heal and renew
April is National Poetry Month, and 2021 marks its 25th anniversary as the largest literary celebration in the world, with participation from millions of children, students, families, poets, and publishers.
While we’re reminded to appreciate poetry as an art form, we should also take time to consider it as a catalyst for wellness. Studies show evidence of poetry’s effect on emotional engagement and brain stimulation. Artistic innovators have discovered poetry’s unique way of appealing to senior adults and encouraging creative expression.
Poetry is inspiring, and it’s fitting to focus on it during an inspirational month of the year in our Pacific Northwest. April is a time of renewal, transformation, and lots of blooming things. Witness the magnificent cherry blossoms gracing the University of Washington Quad and the iconic tulip fields of nearby Skagit Valley.
Poetry is at its best when read aloud, which makes it an excellent activity to share with family and friends – children and our senior loved ones alike. It’s also a wonderful way to spend quiet time alone. The right poem can be like meditation or a mind-calming way to ease into sleep.
If you’re not already a fan of poetry, here are some tips for getting started:
- Find something you like. You can start with some famous poets, like Robert Frost, William Wordsworth, and Emily Dickinson. Or choose poems by Billy Collins, who writes verse in a conversational way that can be both funny and moving. Children’s books often contain rhyming verse, like the whimsical poetry of Shel Silverstein, which resonates with all ages.
- Another way to get started with poetry is to look up the lyrics of some of your favorite songs and read them aloud. Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Tom Waits, and Joni Mitchell are just a few of the many revered poets in music.
- Read it aloud to bring out the best of the verse. If it’s a rhyming poem, the pattern and rhythm of the words can have the same effect on you as music does. Have fun with it.
- Don’t worry about searching for meaning. Many poets use metaphor, which can be enjoyed at face value without attaching something deeper to the words.
Celebrate spring, pick up some poetry, and share it with someone. It’s an enjoyable way to take care of your mind, your emotions, and your attitude.
Poetry validates feelings
Here’s why I wanted to share my thoughts on poetry with you. A little while ago, an author I follow sent a poem that really spoke to me as a senior adult. The verse is not especially lyrical, nor does it have a pleasing rhythmic pattern, but the voice struck home because these words describe what a lot of aging people feel. As more years pass, we want to focus on life’s pleasures.
Enjoy My Soul Has a Hat by Brazilian poet Mario de Andrade.
I counted my years
& realized that I have
Less time to live by,
Than I have lived so far.
I feel like a child who won a pack of candies: at first he ate them with pleasure,
But when he realized that there was little left, he began to taste them intensely.
I have no time for endless meetings where the statutes, rules, procedures
& internal regulations are discussed, knowing that nothing will be done.
I no longer have the patience
To stand absurd people who,
Despite their chronological age,
Have not grown up.
My time is too short:
I want the essence,
My spirit is in a hurry.
I do not have much candy
In the package anymore.
I want to live next to humans,
Very realistic people who know
How to laugh at their mistakes,
Who are not inflated by their own triumphs,
& who take responsibility for their actions.
In this way, human dignity is defended
And we live in truth and honesty.
It is the essentials that make life useful.
I want to surround myself with people
Who know how to touch the hearts of those whom hard strokes of life
Have learned to grow, with sweet touches of the soul.
Yes, I'm in a hurry.
I'm in a hurry to live with the intensity that only maturity can give.
I do not intend to waste any of the remaining desserts.
I am sure they will be exquisite,
Much more than those eaten so far.
My goal is to reach the end satisfied
And at peace with my loved ones and my conscience.
We have two lives
& the second begins when you realize you only have one.
Poetry is therapeutic
A few years ago retired attorney Marvin Wexler created a therapeutic program for elderly residents of a nursing home that involved poetry readings for people with mental and physical disabilities. He aimed for presentations designed to capture his listeners’ interest by including song lyrics along with other poetry, and varying his subject matter to touch on various cultures, holidays, and artistic expression.
Wexler continues to encounter challenges in his listener groups but has realized over time that most residents respond positively to readings. So much so, that many not only eagerly anticipate their poetry sessions, but are also active participants.
They relate in ways that surprise him – even some with significant dementia are able to engage with their imaginations and find a connection with their life experience. He suggests that it’s this very experience that lends perspective and eases the way for older adults to understand poetry, often better than their younger counterparts.
Wexler believes that the nature of poetry is to take us away from the normal pressures of life and allow us to relax and “…restore us to ourselves.”
Poetry invigorates memory
One defining characteristic of poetry is the form it takes and how it appears to the reader. Many poems are written in lines and stanzas, which convey their message with an economy of words. Imagery and feelings are often expressed in a rhythmic pattern that might remind us of music.
Words written in this way – particularly if there are rhyming lines – can be easier to memorize. Most of us can recite a line or two of a poem we learned years ago. But poems needn’t be memorized to achieve memory benefits. The vivid pictures a poet’s words paint can connect us to our own memories and touch us emotionally.
Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken is familiar to many, and it’s evocative of a time in our life when we faced an important decision. Its rhyme scheme makes it enjoyable to read and lends it to memorization. The final verse of the poem is its most notable:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Poetry affects the cognitive process
Poetry asks us to visualize, understand, and find meaning in its words, while feeling the emotion of the verse. The right side of our brain is engaged. When we take on these tasks altogether, listening to or reading a poem means we offer our brains healthy cognitive exercise.
Our minds identify poetic harmony, which is when the sound of the words perfectly suits the topic of the poem. Word combinations may sound powerful and emotional, or subtle and calming, like Mary Oliver’s work Praying.
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
The poetic harmony in Oliver’s poem is an invitation to treat prayer or meditation as a form of quiet communion with some small aspect of nature. We hear it in her simple words and spare phrasing.
Poetry elicits emotion
Poets often express emotions we can relate to. The sensation of connection is powerful when we recognize that another person’s words have so accurately described our feelings.
Former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins’ ability to craft verse about ordinary life is his trademark. He refers to familiar experiences the reader can easily relate to and focuses on the emotions surrounding them. Collins’ voice is so conversational you might feel as if he’s engaging you in a chat over coffee.
A favorite of mine is Forgetfulness, which could well elicit “oh, I know what he means!” from readers. He’s talking about how easily we forget things as we age, an emotional experience but also an inevitable fact of life. Here are the first two verses:
The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,
as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.
If you’re drawn to Collins’ work, I highly recommend listening to him recite his poems. Many of his readings are available on YouTube.
Poetry connects us and reminds us that we’re not alone with our loneliness and the separation we’ve experienced during the pandemic. Readily available at little or no cost, it’s a perfect vehicle for kindling warmth and connectedness in caregiver families. Poetry needn’t consume a lot of time and there are no prerequisites necessary to enjoy it and benefit from it.
You can find a great deal of poetry online at poets.org. The King County Library System has many copies of the best poetry anthologies, which are a good resource for learning about a variety of poets.
Are you interested in writing poetry? The YMCA of Greater Seattle sponsors Virtual Poetry Workshops that encourage your creative side and provide guidance for crafting your own verse.
At SeaCare In-Home Care Services, we’re here to help caregiver families find support and balance while navigating their loved ones’ well-being.
Katie Wright writes about aging and senior wellness from Bellingham, WA. You can read more about her here.
If you or a loved one you know are looking for additional support during this time and are interested in scheduling a free in-home assessment, please contact SeaCare In-Home Care Services today! A SeaCare family member is standing by. 425-559-4339.