Read the winners of our 2021 Dementia together poetry competition

We reveal the winning poets from our 2021 Dementia together magazine poetry competition. Read their poems and why they stood out.

We were humbled by the massive response to our 2021 poetry competition – 141 of you sent us 220 poems, more than ever before.

Thanks to every one of you for taking part, as well as to the amazing shortlisting panel and our guest judge, award-winning poet Vahni Capildeo

Panel members included Pete Middleton in Northamptonshire and Gail Gregory in Lancashire, both living with dementia, along with Zaki Shah in London whose mother writes poetry and has dementia, and the poet and playwright Maria Jastrzębska in East Sussex whose parents both had dementia.

They were joined by two of our 2019 competition winners – Miranda Overett, now in Budapest, and Damon Young in Berkshire – and Helen Helmer, who heads our Publishing team.

Pete was keen to recognise all who entered, saying, ‘I would love to get everyone into a hall so we can give them a huge round of applause.’ 

Vahni adds, ‘The poetry which you generously shared for this competition shows real care for the musicality of language and the craft of words. 

‘I mean it from both head and heart when I say that you poets are all winners, and that I hope you continue writing. You are writing about aspects of life that need to be heard, in ways that reward a hearing.’

2021 poetry competition winners

Winning poets, from left: (top) Sian Breeze, Valerie Bence and Sue McFeely, (bottom) Ruth Higgins, Peter Russell and Sadie Maskery.

Category: From the heart 

Read the winning poems:

First place: ‘The faces of sickness’ by Sian Breeze

We told our son

that Grandpa’s brain was sick.

As we watched you flashing your row of white teeth,

  leaning your head back,

your thin mouth opening like an entrance to another world.

You swallowed us up with your laughter,

your happy tears fell like cake batter from a spoon.

We watched you at the table

supping ale that tasted like soft butter,

as our son stared on at you

and wondered to himself,

  how sick could suddenly look so good.

Second place: ‘Day 5 Bath’ by Valerie Bence

Bathroom as hot as a sauna
clean clothes found
bath run. I tested the temperature as for my babies,
later
she called for help getting out –
but with her voice as weak as a
                                        pipit’s
and my hearing half-disappeared, I didn’t
hear her straight away, just a minute or two
but when I went in
                   her tiny frame perched on the bath edge
exhausted by the effort of trying to become vertical
with knees that won’t bend;
so, I lifted her
lifted my mother, towel-wrapped
thin arms around my shoulders, from the bubbles
shaking with pain no longer hidden –
oh she said this is awful, don’t get this old lovie
and this double-edged benison
gave me the truth of that.
No don’t.

Third place: ‘When’s she coming?’ by Sue McFeely

9.25am

He arrives. “See you later, love.”

9.35am

The well-dressed gentleman
Sitting silently, anxiously by the window.
“When’s she coming?”
A question asked again and again.
“When’s she coming?”

Holding his hand
Offering tea and cake
Distracting with talk of the weather
“When’s she coming?”

10.30am

Staying close-by
Stepping back with him
Into his past
Going with him, letting him lead the way
Trying to grasp his reality.

11.45am

“Come and have lunch.”
“When’s she coming?”
Sandwich untouched
Hands worrying at the edge of the coat he refuses to take off
“When’s she coming?”

2pm

A game of Snakes and Ladders
He slips back and forth
Now today, now ‘before’
And back again

“When’s she coming?”

His mind manoeuvres like the counter
Laboriously up the ladder to ‘before’
And a lurching drop down the snake
Back to ‘now’

“When’s she coming?”

3.30pm

A car
An elderly lady
His face lights up
His sweetheart
The question finally laid to rest –
        For today

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. 

 

Category: A way with words

Read the winning poems:

First place: ‘Against Intruders’ by Ruth Higgins

And when they come unwelcome to your garden,
when your garden doesn’t know you anymore,

take the five notes a blackbird sang last evening;
take 1986 and write it down in tiny figures

on white paper. Take her name and say it;
add My wife

Draw a cube in pencil, a perfect cube:
the best they’ve ever seen. Do it again.

A mug of tea on the pine table: feel it
between your palms, steady and warm.

Second place: ‘The Bloodknot’ by Peter Russell

Dedicated to Reg Russell, 1929–2021

Before I could hold a rod, I would help watch your float –
A permitted treat when I enjoyed the stillness of fishing with you,
And marvelled at how you waited so quiet and caught

Red-eyed tench, furtive carp and stripey perch from coarse water
Rivers and ponds; and as mates when I could fish too,
On the grey Solent in an orange dinghy with a two-stroke motor

Trolling feathers for mackerel, or float fishing for bream on the tide
Waiting as patient as you were with me for a bite;
You knew sandbanks, and marks, and wrecks that would hide

Mythical monster conger eels, or shoals of flatties in the mud
You knew how much bait and just how much weight
To keep the float upright and hold bottom on the sea bed

So let’s get the rods out again: use our bloodknot of lines and skills
Before the tide sinks your memory among the wrecks
We’ll ledger for names tugging in the deep, cast lures for words like eels

And together we’ll find the right bait and the hooks and lines to match:
Still mates, me waiting for your float to vanish, and you to strike
And reel in memories, glinting from ever deeper, and ever harder to catch.

Third place: ‘Salad’ by Sadie Maskery

We learned to roll with his anger,
frustration as our respect
slipped from his grasp
the harder he tried.
One day, “Dad,” I said,
“The fridge door.”
He turned and roared at me
“NO. I meant that, I need it open,
I have not finished yet.
You are stupid.
You are stupid, not me.
Stupid woman.
I need it.
Open.”
For the next hour it gaped,
the light burning, lettuce
softened by the summer sun.
“All right? That’s how I like it.
I like it. Open.”
The fear behind his eyes
as he made us sandwiches
with wilted leaves, butter that
slipped from his knife
the harder he cried.

These were poems using techniques such as rhythm, form and imagery to move us or make us think.

First place went to ‘Against Intruders’ by Ruth Higgins in Hertfordshire, which Vahni described as ‘a brilliantly tender and minimal charm against the inevitabilities of decay’. 

‘It is a poem strong enough to conjure a “fear not” while being humanly true to the terror we feel as our selves are lost to ourselves,’ says Vahni. 

‘This poem, arranged in couplets, begins with “And”, placing us in the middle of some process already begun. It is, cleverly, a countdown poem.

‘There are three appeals, or reminders, to “Take”, “take”, “take” steps to remember things in words.

‘Then there is a twice-repeated action of drawing. These and many more subtle and overt techniques chart what is happening to the human person, without losing the musical, almost magical, qualities of language.’ 

Ruth says, ‘When I wrote this poem, I was thinking of those times when we draw on significant moments and everyday positive experiences to “hold our ground” when things get difficult. 

‘I was amazed to win and really delighted that the poem spoke to a writer as brilliant and inventive as Vahni Capildeo.’ 

Second place went to ‘The Bloodknot’ by Peter Russell in Glasgow, which Vahni thought was ‘a powerful poem’.

‘The great technical control of the consistent image of fishing, drawn from lived experience and extended into symbolic meaning, is matched by the skilful use of the tercet form and of rhymes, near-rhymes, or off-rhymes,’ says Vahni. 

‘This control is counterpointed by surging emotions just below the surface. There is new depth to this disturbing, beautiful work on every re-reading. 

‘I especially loved the run-on lines in the last two stanzas and the double meaning of “reel in memories”, which felt at once accelerated and elegiac, like the progress of loss even while the moment is cherished.’ 

Peter says, ‘My father had a prodigious memory, including for the things that he picked up and were useful for fishing. I noticed that he was losing interest in fishing as he became affected by his dementia.

‘This of course saddened me greatly, both on his behalf and because it was something that we shared, both when I was a child and in later life. I always remember him for sharing it with me – and I will always be grateful. 

‘I am of course honoured. I also read the poem to younger people at spoken word events, hoping they will get an insight into dementia and the losses it brings.’ 

Third place went to ‘Salad’ by Sadie Maskery in East Lothian, described by Vahni as ‘a deceptively artless poem’. 

‘Every sound has been chosen with absolute care, from the rough, potentially conflictive r-, sl-, fr- and st- sounds of the beginning to the softer l- and sl- sounds which overtake the poem’s soundscape,’ says Vahni. 

‘The act of making something ordinary, nourishing, and everyday – a sandwich – and how that act, from being simple, turns into a challenge, is potently symbolic as well as true to life, an excellent image for the condition under consideration.

‘The unexpected “harder he cried”, rather than the more expected “harder he tried”, delivers a shock of deep pathos as a strong man loses his grip. Wonderful work.’ 

Sadie says, ‘It is a privilege to be part of something that helps to spread awareness of Alzheimer’s and the different ways it can affect people living with it as well as those around them.

‘Thank you for the opportunity.’ 

Other poems shortlisted in ‘A way with words’ were:

  • ‘Fleeting Memories’ by Taymaz Valley in Cambridgeshire.
  • ‘A Clean Break’ by Fiona Heatlie in Glasgow.
  • ‘A kaleidoscope of memories’ by Gary Hodge in Devon.
  • ‘The last goodbye’ by Margot Tilbury in Hampshire.
  • ‘That Old Dance’ by Catherine Charlwood in Liverpool.
  • ‘Pushing your dotage’ by Anna Somerset in Greater London.
  • ‘Looking Games’ by Amanda de Blaquière in Wirral. 
Share your poems

You can share your poems about dementia in the members’ area of our online community, Talking Point.

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