The Condensary

Photo1805“Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world,” wrote Shelley, and this is no more true than on an Alzheimer’s Unit. I am a 66-year-old whippersnapper with a lifelong passion for poetry. I’m retired now, but at one time in my life I found myself working in the nursing home world of elders as a social worker.I did my job of facilitating family support groups, naming resident needs at Care Conferences, and finding lost sweaters. I became the friend and advocate for each resident, some of whom I feared, a few of whom I disliked, all of whom I came to actually love. Beneath the tasks of the job role, the poet in me saw the dazzling intersections of the elders’ rich life stories. The poet in me looked around and saw, in one single and singular corridor of Earth school, teachers!

Evergreen was the name of the resident poetry circle which I conducted weekly. Stimulating the memories of participants, patiently eliciting and recording their responses, I stretched my listening limits into outer space. One elder told her son that in the circle, she was “heard alive.”

The pinnacle of my learning experience with these teachers was the evening we held a poetry reading by the residents. Their family members sat in rows as audience, low expectations keeping them quiet and wondering. In the transformed dining room, the Evergreen Resident-Poets sat in a semicircle at the front. Each Poet held a page with large-print lines of their own words. I stood in back of the Evergreen arc, holding the microphone. As the turn of each Resident-Poet came, I leaned in and held the microphone in front of them. Some read their own words. You could see the surprise and pleasure on their faces as they recognized their cadence, or their story, or their unique diction. Some proudly held their paper, while I read their lines over their shoulder. To me, the faces of the residents said, “We are still here! See us! Our lives mean something! We still have something to offer!” The families were startled and amazed.

I learned we all have something to give, we all have dignity, even in dementia. In retrospect, that evening was one of the most important nights of my life. Poetry condenses meaning. That evening, an Alzheimer’s Unit became a condensary. It showed me that wherever I find myself in my life, I can peer deeper, beneath the surface. I can find the hidden beauty.

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