Alzheimer’s Poetry Project: The therapeutic use of poetry

Jan 15, 2014 Comments Off on Alzheimer’s Poetry Project: The therapeutic use of poetry by

By Marisel Mendoza

Translation by Ellen Donnison


JoseMondragon2. Poesía y AlzheimerAlzheimer’s disease is an illness that mainly affects those of an advanced age. In the fight against memory loss new therapies are revolutionising geriatric treatment. These therapies have demonstrated positive effects; one therapeutic approach is the use of poetry in the treatment of those suffering from dementia. 

The use of poetry as a therapeutic medium has resulted in the promotion of a cultural shift in approaches to healthcare. The daily inclusion of art as part of the care given to those suffering from Alzheimer’s starts with the regular reading of classic poems that elderly people may have learnt during childhood. The Alzheimer’s Poetry Project is distinguished by its work with elderly Latin Americans and by its use of these creative techniques.


The project and its use of the Spanish Language

The Alzheimer’s Poetry Project is highly interesting and valuable. We were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to learn about it in greater detail thanks to its founder, the poet Gary Glazner, who began the program in 2004, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Over time the program has developed in other cities in the United States and branched out even further, establishing itself in various European countries. In total the project works with more than 15,000 people living with this illness and trains more than 1,500 health employees, familiarising them with the use of poetry as a means of treatment for dementia.

A distinctive aspect of the project’s work has been developed through the treatment of elderly Latin American people who suffer from Alzheimer’s. This is due to the project’s association with the Latin Geriatric Centre in Milwaukee (USA), orientated around the care for those who live with dementia and whose first language is Spanish.

There is a high population of Latin American people in the United States which continues to grow. Sadly, the numbers of those suffering from some type of dementia is also growing. Regarding this, initiatives directed specifically at supporting this group of people are fundamental. It is also important to be able to replicate these therapies in other countries to help ageing immigrants whose first language differs from the native tongue of their adopted country. 


Constructing a poetry program in Spanish

To begin a poetry session, the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project uses the technique of ‘call and response’. The leader of the group recites a verse and encourages the group to repeat it. The leader conducts the class with enthusiasm and energy, helping to heighten and maintain the participants’ attention. 

The class is led by Nelva Olin, the coordinator of Adult Day Care which is part of the Latin Geriatric Centre. The poetry group began with one-hour sessions, however these quickly turned into two-hours. The very first session began with a recitation of the saying:


Pan es pan, queso es queso,

(Bread is bread, cheese is cheese,)

no hay amor si no hay un beso.

(there is no love if there is no kiss.)


This type of verse recalls such childhood experiences as reciting rhymes whilst jumping over a skipping rope. This was an aspect of the work was developed by Olin, who, during each class, repeatedly recites and laughs at these words to encourage the group. She then invites a member of the group to recount the story of their first kiss, which always prompts infectious laughter. This encourages everyone to participate, joking and sharing their stories.

In this atmosphere, Olin repeats the saying over and over, using the call and response technique whilst the group repeats the words. This maintains the class’s energy and helps to focus participants’ attention. Towards the end of the session some can still remember the words of the rhyme.

Gary Glazner explains the program’s methodology, and how working with Spanish speaking people helped him and his colleagues to discover which sayings function best for the call and response exercises. These sayings are transmitted by word of mouth, from one generation to the next, functioning as advice or warnings and many times, are often very funny. He explains that the sayings are similar to the haiku, a form of traditional Japanese poetry. This is due to their brevity, offering a pearl of wisdom in a few words. These sayings have received a positive response from those living with dementia. Many patients are already familiar with these phrases and sometimes a person saying them can be the spark that ignites someone else’s memory.


“Nútreme Hoy” (“Nurture me today”)

The work of the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project, has appeared in art forms that can be accessed by many people. This work enables those suffering from dementia and others affected by the condition to contribute useful advice. A result of this work is the book “Nurture me Today”, a new poetry anthology in Spanish. It is a tool that helps those who have lost their memories, help regain them through the use of written poetry. The book includes 50 poems and sayings in both English and Spanish. It also contains essays on the use of poetry to reconnect those living with dementia with their forgotten memories and finally, how to create a poetry program.


For more information about this program visit:



(Poem written by the Latino Geriatric Centre poetry group in Milwaukee)


Ni cariño ni besos.

(Neither affection, nor kisses.)

Cuando yo era niño,

(When I was a child,)

pedía pan y queso a mis padres.

(I asked for bread and cheese from my parents.)

No podían dármelos.

(They couldn’t give them to me.)

Pero sí podían darme amor.

(But they could give me love.)

Mi primer novio, él me tomó de la mano.

(My first boyfriend took me by the hand.)


El amor es más grande que pan y queso.

(Love is greater than bread and cheese.)

Cuando fui al mercado,

(When I went to the market,)

no hubo pan ni queso.

(there was no bread or cheese.)

Pero había una muchacha para besar.

(But there was a young girl to kiss.)

Yo esperaba al lado del río.

(I waited by the side of the river.)

Mi novia venía para recoger agua para su familia,

(My girlfriend came to fetch water for her family,)

y allí nos besábamos.

(and there we kissed.)


Las muchachas no me besan.

(The young girls don’t kiss me.)

Me rechazan a mí.

(They reject me.)

Nadie me quiso, nunca.

(No one wanted me, ever.)

Sólo mi mamá me quería un poco.

(Only my mother loved me a little.)

Mamá me decía, “Te doy pan y queso,

(My mother said to me, “I give you bread and cheese,)

y si no los comes,

(and if you don’t eat them,)

no te beso.”

(I won’t kiss you”.)


Esto significa que, si tienes novio o novia

(This means, if you don’t have a boyfriend or a girlfriend)

que no quieres besar,

(that you don’t want to kiss,)

tampoco recibes pan.

(then neither will you receive bread.)


Le dije a él, me puedes besar aquí.

(I said to him, you can kiss me here.)

(Señala con el dedo la mejilla.)

(Indicating this with a finger on my cheek.)

Me puedes besar aquí.

(You can kiss me here.)

(Señala con el dedo los labios.)

(Indicating this with a finger on my lips.)

Pero bajo de aquí no me puedes besar.

(But you can’t kiss me below here.)

(Dibuja una línea a través del cuello.)

(Drawing a line across my neck.)


Cuando eres joven,

(When you were young,)

a los años 14, 15, 16, sueñas mucho,

(during the ages 14, 15 and 16, you dreamt a lot,)

pero a los 18 ya sabes

(but at 18 years you now know)

decir sí o no,

(how to say yes or no,)

y puedes comerte el postre.

(and you can eat the dessert all up.)



VL English

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