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HealthWatch: Poetry Helping Alzheimer's Patients, Families Cope

NOVATO (CBS 5) - Bay Area families who struggle with the impact of Alzheimer's disease are using poetry to help rekindle memories and create moments of joy for patients and families alike.

The Brooklyn, New York-based Alzheimer's Poetry Project is based on a simple idea: Poetry can have a powerful and positive impact on people living with Alzheimer's disease.

The project is derived in part from studies that show people with dementia can remember words and lines from poems they learned in childhood. Reciting those poems can facilitate creativity and spark memories that may be buried.

"You see (people) start to be more expressive -- their facial expressions are brighter, they're smiling, they're laughing, they're playing with you," said Gary Glazner, founder and Executive Director of the APP. who began working with people living with dementia at the Marin Adult Day Health Center in Novato in 1997. Since that time the APP has served more than 15,000 people in 20 states living with Alzheimer's disease and related dementia.

Glazner said he uses well-loved poems and classic poems that people might have learned as children. Then, building around that "we have techniques to perform and create poems with them," he explained.

Those techniques include call-and-response – reciting a line of high-energy poetry, and having the group echo the words. Glazner said he also uses humor, along with movement and touch, to help people feel the rhythm and energy of the poem.

About 90% of participants at Marin Adult Day Health have some form of dementia, according to program director Holly Rylance. When you can engage those with significant memory loss, even for a moment, it's a moment of pure joy, Rylance said.

"That magic can happen still, no matter how impaired a person is. They may not remember what they did earlier, but they sure had fun and it meant everything to them."

Along with the benefit to the people with dementia, renewed creativity allows caregivers and family members to see a new side of the person for whom they are caring.

"I think that that's very helpful for them," said Glazner. "The family is so devastated by the loss of memory, I think it's important for them to see that the people can still be creative."

Josie Pelletier, whose mother Belen Valdez was diagnosed with dementia in 2005, knows firsthand the value of the Poetry Project.

"To see my mom feeling happy and enjoying herself and having a smile, that's priceless," said Pelletier. "It's worth all the issues that we have at home, it's worth it all the time."

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