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Haiku for Parkinson’s: Inviting Connection—Philomene Kocher

 

h45 Haiku for Parkinson's

The long list of non-motor symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease (PD) includes mild cognitive impairment and dementia. While being part of other conditions, it is estimated that approximately 40% of persons with PD may eventually be affected.

In this blog post, Philomene Kocher relates her experiences using haiku as a bridge, to connect with, and facilitate reminiscing and sharing by, persons living with dementia in a long-term care setting. Her work has inspired and, will no doubt continue to inspire, persons living with dementia and those supporting them.

Philomene Kocher writes:

It was an unexpected journey: sharing haiku with persons with dementia, and collaborating with them to create haiku.

My friend (Marjorie Woodbridge) worked as a chaplain in a long-term care facility and created a spiritual care program for persons with dementia (Soul Sessions). When she noticed they responded to traditional poetry, she invited me to bring haiku to share with them: haiku are often about ordinary things, and she could coordinate the haiku around a theme.

Most of them had never heard of haiku before. And I had never co-facilitated a haiku workshop before. It would have been bewildering for all of us, if not for the generosity and open-heartedness of my friend. She knew each participant and respected their quirks and capacities. Most of all, she loved being with them.

Our collaboration was in service to the participants in our groups. We wanted to invite them to reminisce in a hospitable environment, and we wanted to welcome their sharing in whatever way they were able. Another intention was to invite connection—with themselves, others, and sometimes the family members and staff who would join us. I feel that haiku invites connection all on its own, because to appreciate a haiku means that I need to participate—I need to relate it to my own life. I am reminded of what Diane Ackerman noted in her book Deep Play: “It’s ironic that poets use words to convey what lies beyond words.”

What was one of our sessions like? Chaotic, fun, creative. We shared haiku (chosen to reflect the theme of the session) during the first half, and recorded any lively phrases on a flipchart. Then, during the second half of the session, we co-created haiku from the words and phrases. Marjorie and I were the ones crafting the poems with input from those attending. Sometimes a haiku would appear fully formed from a story.

raiding my grandparents’ garden
squishing the strawberries
as I run away           (Soul Session Poets)

And other times we might have the first two lines and someone (a participant or a family member) would chime in with a closing line.

thinking of the past
we do a lot of that
and more as we get older           (Soul Session Poets)

For the participants, they could see that their words were valued enough to be written down, and then repeated as we collaborated on a poem. Most of all, though, was the camaraderie of the process—at times they were laughing together, and other times comforting one another. I was once asked how poetry could be considered spiritual care. I replied that one of the deepest yearnings of the human heart is for connection, and what happened in the sessions was answering that call.

We created a chapbook of 30 haiku from the sessions (signs of spring, 2007). Some of the poems were closer to very short poems than to haiku, and yet they still carried a resonance that spoke to others. The back cover noted that “the poems will inspire, provoke, and comfort.” With funding from a local community foundation, over a thousand copies were printed. Over the next few years, the chapbooks were shared with education, health care, spiritual care, and community audiences. and were well received.

My adventure took me to graduate school for a Master of Education program to explore more deeply what was happening in the poetry sessions. I concluded: “The persons with dementia responded in the playful environment of Soul Sessions. They voiced their stories, although sometimes fragmented, with honesty and joy. We were all involved in sacred play. As Rosamund and Benjamin Zander describe in their book The Art of Possibility: ‘Art, after all, is about rearranging us, creating surprising juxtapositions, emotional openings, startling presences, [and] flight paths to the eternal.’”

The challenges I encountered in co-facilitating the sessions were about not knowing—not knowing how to be with persons with dementia and what to expect, not knowing about how sharing and writing haiku collaboratively might work. I learned that it was important to initiate conversation with a person with dementia, and that the conversation may not be like other conversations. I learned that word play and luminous language were still available to persons with dementia, if I was willing to listen. I learned that collaboration fostered a process that neither myself nor Marjorie could have created on our own. I learned that an encounter with not knowing has its own merit, especially if I am accompanied by a friend.

All of these lessons became more relevant a few years later when my aunt developed dementia. She was the one who had introduced me to haiku the year after my mother died, and who had accompanied me to several haiku events—including the first haiku workshop I led. I wrote this haibun just after completing my studies. I was able to be present with her (and myself) in a more compassionate way because of my experiences in the haiku gatherings in Soul Sessions.

Faith

My sisters and I visit our aunt who lives in the convent infirmary. I’m not sure she recognizes us through her dementia, but she is pleasant. She counts the hugs we give her as we leave.

in her room
a familiar picture of Jesus
walking on water

 

Sources

Diane Ackerman. (1999). Deep play. New York: Random House.

Philomene Kocher. (2008). “Their capacity to delight”: Knowing persons with dementia through haiku. Unpublished master’s thesis, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Available through THF Digital Library.

Philomene Kocher & Marjorie Woodbridge.(2008). How to hold a haiku session. Journal of Dementia Care, 16(4),14-16. Available through THF Digital Library.

Soul Session Poets. (2007). signs of spring: haiku poems by persons with dementia. Kingston, ON. Available through THF Digital Library.

Marjorie Woodbridge. (2008). Soul sessions. Journal of Dementia Care, 16(4), 14-15. Available through THF Digital Library.

Rosamund & Benjamin Zander. (2000). The art of possibility. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

 

For readers interested in finding out more about poetry with persons with dementia, here are the names of some individuals doing this work:

Anne Basting (United States): TimeSlips

Gary Glazner (United States): Alzheimer’s Poetry Project

John Killick (Scotland)

Oddgeir Synnes (Norway)

 

Biography

Philomene Kocher lives in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, and began writing haiku in 1991. Her second book of haiku, still: new, selected & collaborative haiku, was published by Ekstasis Editions in 2022. After 30 years, she is still astonished by the magic of haiku.

 

 

Stella Pierides is a writer and poet. Her books include "Of This World" (2017) and "In the Garden of Absence" (2012), both HSA Merit Book Award recipients. Her article “Parkinson’s Toolbox: The Case for Haiku” appeared in Juxtapositions: A Journal of Research and Scholarship in Haiku, issue 8, 2022.

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