These were poems judged to authentically express a person’s experiences of their own or someone else’s dementia.
First place went to ‘The faces of sickness’ by Sian Breeze in Gloucestershire, a poem that Vahni described as ‘a beautiful achievement’.
‘Told in language that looks unadorned, this poem gently holds itself together with simple echoes (‘‘sick’’, ‘‘back’’, ‘‘batter’’, ‘‘butter’’),’ says Vahni.
‘Its art consists in allowing breathing space to images that have a slow but extraordinarily profound impact.
‘The insistent focus on celebration, on the presence of three generations, and the youngest learning that ‘‘sick’’ can look ‘‘good’’, is a courageous challenge to stereotypes of illness meaning unmixed misery and fear. The fact that the young son is surprised shows that those stereotypes hold some truth.
‘Hope and gratitude are decisions, not just passing feelings. This poem has the sweet toughness to foreground that lesser-heard, much-lived truth.’
Sian says, ‘I am training as a mental health nurse right now, so have had the privilege of working with lots of different people with the condition.
‘This poem was written about my father-in-law, who had Alzheimer’s and passed away this January after a fall. My son, like many children, found the illness confusing.
‘He couldn’t understand how Grandpa could be short-tempered and solitary one minute, unable to be around his grandchildren, and how he could laugh and be very jovial at other times.
‘This poem is about the complexity of being unwell, and tries to focus on some of the positive times we had.’
Second place went to ‘Day 5 Bath’ by Valerie Bence in Buckinghamshire, which intrigued Vahni by its title.
‘This poem conveys the extreme peril that “ordinary life” like bath time has for those of us who are frail,’ says Vahni.
‘The mother is literally on the edge – at the edge of the bathtub, but also poised between life and death. She grimly warns her daughter not to live as long as she herself has.
‘However, despite this grimness, the quality of attention in the poem gives an overall impression of tenderness.
‘Crafting the language to tell us this story is an act of tenderness which is just as true as the refusal to look away from the pain.’
Valerie says, ‘In 2019 I took over the main care for my mum from my brother for a month while he went on a long-awaited trip to see his new grandson in Australia.
‘I was both daunted and unprepared for the reality of the responsibility. The month became a 30-day poetic diary – and this was indeed Day 5.
‘Subsequently, Mum had a fall, hip surgery, her dementia rapidly deteriorated and she died about six weeks after being transferred to a care home.
‘Just pre-COVID, it was a traumatic time and her last few weeks will stay with us. However, to have part of this diary chosen in this way has been wonderful.’
Third place went to ‘When’s she coming?’ by Sue McFeely in Gloucestershire, which Vahni called ‘a dramatic poem’.
‘It is a drama of waiting,’ says Vahni. ‘Waiting is a huge part of life: whether in traffic, in a post office queue, on the hospital ward, behind the lines in war, or just for a mobile phone to charge. Waiting becomes intensified to high drama in environments such as care homes.
‘This poem is not about being a “patient”, or about having patience. It is about the yearning that characterises the lover in the beloved’s absence.
‘It gives the dignity of the long tradition of the love poem to a person in the autumn of their life. It’s impossible not to be moved.’
Sue says, ‘I was inspired by witnessing the sadness and anxiety of an elderly gentleman who came to the Tewkesbury Day Centre for a few weeks so that his wife could have a break.
‘As soon as his wife drove off, he would start fretting and asking what time she would be back. The relief when she returned was written all over his face and his eyes would light up with absolute joy.
‘It’s amazing to be chosen as a winner; it was so moving to see his two extremes of emotion and I’m really happy to have the chance to share this.’
Other poems shortlisted in ‘From the heart’ were:
- ‘Funny How’ by Yvie Holder in East Yorkshire.
- ‘Reminiscence group’ by Sue Ibrahim in Kent.
- ‘Memories’ by Sarah J Bryson in Oxfordshire.
- ‘Afterwards’ by Pat Harland in Nottinghamshire.
- ‘Music and Silence’ by Jennifer Willis in Norfolk.
- ‘Mum Says Ooh’ by Steven Croft in Greater Manchester.