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Poetry as balm in dealing with dementia

The average life expectancy for persons born in 1900 was 47 years. Today, in the United States, it is 77 years. Today also, more than five million Americans suffer from Alzheimer's or a related form of dementia.

Rachel Hadas' husband has Alzheimer's.
Rachel Hadas' husband has Alzheimer's.Read more

By Rachel Hadas

Paul Dry Books. 204 pp. $16.95 nolead ends

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Reviewed by Frank Wilson

The average life expectancy for persons born in 1900 was 47 years. Today, in the United States, it is 77 years. Today also, more than five million Americans suffer from Alzheimer's or a related form of dementia.

They are not always elderly. In 2005, poet Rachel Hadas' husband, George Edwards, a composer and professor of music at Columbia University, was diagnosed with dementia. He was 61.

Statistics, of course, are utterly impersonal, but it is people who fall victim to disease. Hadas' Strange Relation demonstrates painfully that dementia is a peculiarly interpersonal affliction. As George withdraws ever more deeply into silence, friends and colleagues draw away from him, leaving Hadas living with a domestic specter.

She copes by using the tools she is most adept with - those of literature. She encapsulates her experiences in poems of her own, but also discovers new meanings in poems with which she'd long been familiar - meanings she had never suspected and that proved strangely pertinent.

She suddenly found that the final stanza of Philip Larkin's "Talking in Bed," for instance, "captures a truth about trying to talk to a person with dementia that I have rarely seen acknowledged, let alone so crisply and authoritatively put":

It becomes still more difficult to find

Words at once true and kind

Or not untrue and not unkind.

As for her own poems, the one that may capture what she has gone through as crisply and authoritatively as Larkin's is "Hotel," originally titled "Dementia Blues," Hadas' "sole experiment in the blues form." Here are the first two stanzas:

Living with dementia is like riding on a carousel.

I said dementia is a big old carousel.

And you can't get off, but it turns into a hotel.

Year after year they reserve you the same space.

Year after year they save you the same old place.

They forget your name, but they never forget your face.

The way literary habits come to her aid is perhaps clearest in the chapter called "Similes." As Hadas explains:

By 2006, when the uncanniness of living with a man who couldn't carry on a conversation but could scamper around a tennis court had crept into every nook and cranny of my days and infiltrated my dreams, certain similes came to my aid. . . . They helped to lift me above the battlefield of living alongside someone with dementia - a battlefield not of epic heroism but of remorseless, grinding boredom, of endless petty tasks and bureaucratic challenges, of pervasive loneliness.

A case in point: When George was first diagnosed, he asked the neurologist if he would get better. The answer was that his condition was "permanent and progressive." Hadas calls this "a tidy alliterative package," noting that "the first half suggested stasis, the second motion." This prompts her to start "envisioning a one-way road on which it was possible to drive at various speeds, or even to stop for a while. There might be an occasional detour, some of the scenery might even be quite pretty, but there was no turning around and going back."

Friends offer other similes for George. One notices how he looked at her when she sat down for a snack - "like a cow coming up to the fence." Later, the same friend, told of his rapid daily walks, suggests Hadas "think of him as a tall hamster."

These may sound cruel, but they are evidently apt, and like all of the strategies Hadas employs, enable her to maintain, paradoxically, both an appropriate nearness to and a necessary distance from her husband.

Eventually, it becomes necessary to place him in an institution, the first of two, as it turns out. After George shoves an elderly patient in the first facility, Hadas is told George can no longer stay there.

While packing his belongings, she comes upon a sheet of yellow legal paper on which he has attempted to write something. The page is reproduced in the book and is heartbreakingly incomprehensible. One cannot help wondering whether a normal mental life is also imprisoned in his silence.

Strange Relation is probably necessary reading for anyone facing the sort of ordeal Hadas continues to deal with. But it is more than a tale of illness and its discontents. In the end, it is a testimony of love, and a demonstration that, popular songs notwithstanding, love has less to do with how you feel than with how you act.