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U of M Morris student Kate Beyer and West Wind Village resident Helen Ryhn.

University of Minnesota, Morris, senior Kate Beyer talks about the upcoming holiday season with West Wind Village resident Helen Ryhn.

Turning memories into poetry

By Cass Erickson

From M, winter 2005


Different Back Then

Things were different back then.
Could hire a man for a dollar.
You can't do that now.
Didn't have a tractor in them days.
We had horses, yeah.
Yep, them were the days.
Even the horses were tougher.
--Spoken by Iver Wevley; made into poem by David Nelson
Once a week, at the West Wind Village, a long-term care facility in Morris, Minnesota, UMM creative writing students ask the residents--some of whom have varying degrees of Alzheimer's--about their lives. Then they turn those answers into poems which are read to the residents the following week.

When the residents hear their poems, they light up. "I wrote that?" they ask. "That's my poem?" "Most of them like to talk about themselves, their past, and what has happened to them," says UMM student Andy Spofford. "They're a lot of fun to listen to and interact with." The students send letters to the residents' families during the semester and also invite them to poetry readings. The impetus for the project came about when UMM English professor Argie Manolis was a graduate student in creative writing at Arizona State University. Her professor sent her to a local Alzheimer's unit to work on a writing project with the residents, who were not eager to open up. "I went home crying the first day," she says. But after doing some research, she discovered that if the patients' senses were stimulated, they'd be more conversant and remember things from their past. After arriving at UMM four years ago, Manolis wanted to continue this work with her writing classes as a service-learning opportunity. Each week, the students plan an activity that will jog the residents' memories and get them talking. "Since Alzheimer's patients can't tell long narrative stories, but can recall short moments... poetry is a good form to record their stories," says Manolis. "There are conceptual leaps that Alzheimer's patients make that are similar to those that poets make." Since many of the residents grew up on farms or were farmers, students will bring in farm-related props and pass them around. They'll ask open-ended questions such as "Did you have hay on your farm?" or "Is this how it smelled?" "Sometimes it'll bring back a poignant memory and other times they'll say, [matter-of-factly,] 'Yeah, the hay smelled just like that,'" Manolis says. Music and dancing are also a hit. "They'll remember the words of every single hymn in the Lutheran hymn book but they can't remember their daughter's name," Manolis says. "And there will be times when students come back and say they didn't get a single poem, but they sang hymns the entire time. And that's okay. It's not only about the poems." Michael Cahill, the support coordinator for Alzheimer's Australia, visited Manolis and Lisa Denzer, the activity director at West Wind Village, with the hope of adopting the curriculum and beginning a similar project in Australia. "I think it's an excellent program, and its helps her so much to be involved... to reminiscence and to enjoy her memories," says Marty Kroening, whose sister, Evie Kussata, is a West Wind resident with some dementia. "I hope the project can continue. It's been beneficial not only to Evie but also to the rest of us. We like to watch her progress, and see that she's happy."