“Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone…”
Guess you have to be a certain age to recall Joni Mitchell’s haunting refrain from ‘Big Yellow Taxi’, writes Chair of Literature Works, Heather Norman-Soderlind.
Her song was about the loss of paradise to parking lots, our project is about the loss of memory to a life marked by potential isolation and exclusion and how the power of poetry can help revive buried memories, restore a sense of community and family connections, bring back joy to people’s lives.
Memory loss is often the first and most distressing part of dementia, a condition which currently affects 850,000 people living in the UK. Dementia can disrupt all aspects of a person’s life, as well as that of their families and friends. It is progressive – the ability to remember, understand, communicate and reason declines over time.
Prompted by the personal experience of one of us, Tracey Guiry, Director of the Poetry Archive, whose mother, diagnosed with dementia, responded miraculously to poetry, a group of us got together professionally to investigate how we might embed the use of poetry in Memory Cafes – places where people with dementia meet socially with family or carers. We began to gather evidence that specially trained poets, visiting such settings, can make a real difference to participants’ lives. Recalling familiar poetry, learnt when at school, individuals with memory loss are able to recover a degree of language their carers thought long lost or they are able to engage with the poet in other ways, such as creating new poetry based on their experiences of the past.
Such is the impact of such sessions, we determined we should broadcast as widely as we could the importance of poetry as a therapy for memory loss whilst at the same time helping to generate further public awareness of the condition of dementia.
Memory is terribly precious. Its loss devastating. We don’t know what a gift we each have till it’s gone.
And so we are marking National Memory Day on Thursday 18th May this year and in future years, during Dementia Awareness Week.
We hope you will join us in marking this day too. Read or memorise a poem. Read a poem to others. Help someone you know with memory loss recall the rhyme and rhythms of poems loved in childhood. Consider a donation to National Memory Day to help us expand our poet-in-residencies in memory cafes and other care settings across the UK.