Poetry Sessions at the Corstorphine Dementia Project

Since the beginning of October, poet Ken Cockburn has been running weekly poetry sessions at the Corstorphine Dementia Project: a warm, person-centred day centre for local people living with varying stages of dementia. With a focus on reminiscence and wellbeing, these sessions are part of our year-round Communities Programme and we recently stopped by the centre to listen in.

It’s mid-October and the room is bright. A group of fourteen older adults are gathered in a semi-circle and Ken Cockburn – standing up front in a checked shirt – begins by opening the lid of the hard-backed suitcase he’s placed on the table. A few group members shift in their seats to look. Inside, a sign reads ‘Autumn’ which, Ken tells us, is the theme for this morning.

What follows is an hour of poetry, song, and stories, interwoven with gentle conversation prompts which Ken offers up to the group like a gift: no expectation or pressure to reply.

The suitcase is the focal point for the session – a hardbacked leather case that once served as his mother’s school bag – and Ken takes seasonal objects out of it throughout the morning, placing them on the table: a paper bag of leaves picked from the garden, a basket of red apples, an orange flecked blanket, a pair of gardening gloves. He reads poems, from Emily Dickinson to John Keats, sings ‘Autumn Leaves’ which others tentatively (then wholeheartedly) join in with.

One standout moment is when Ken begins reading ‘To a Mouse’ and one group member recites the entirety of the first verse along with him, saying she learned it in school. ‘Well,’ Ken says, ‘I’ll make sure to bring a Burns poem every week from now on.’

Equally striking is the response to the session from another woman on the opposite side of the room. Quiet in a soft blue jumper, she doesn’t say a word besides her name at the start, but she sits the whole morning with one hand on her heart, her face tilted towards Ken as he reads poem after poem; almost as if she’s sitting by an open window and the words are a golden light warming her skin.

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Ken Cockburn is a poet and translator based in Edinburgh, and has wide experience of running poetry and writing sessions for children and adults. We’ve been lucky to work with him various times over the last few years, and Ken is also running another poetry session for us this autumn at Gilmerton Care Home. Find his website: here.

The Corstorphine Dementia Project is a community-based charity which has been offering day centre opportunities to local people living with dementia for the last 30 years. Find out more about them: here.

Thank you to the players of the People’s Postcode Lottery who support the Book Festival’s year-round Communities Programme.

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