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The Power of Poetry: Students Connect with Senior Citizens through ‘HPU Lifelines’

04.22.2014
HPU students Ally Kane (left) and Jessie Drew lead one of many poetry writing sessions with residents at Pennybyrn at Maryfield in High Point through the HPU Lifelines program.

HPU students Ally Kane (left) and Jessie Drew lead one of many poetry writing sessions with residents at Pennybyrn at Maryfield in High Point through the HPU Lifelines program.

HIGH POINT, N.C., April 22, 2014 – You’d think it would take a major ice breaker to get a group of college students and senior citizens who are generations apart to connect in a way that sparks interest and friendship.

For a group of HPU students and senior citizens from Pennybyrn at Maryfield and the Roy B. Culler Senior Center, it takes something as simple as a poem about spring.

This semester, the students have used the process of writing and reciting poetry at the two facilities to not only build friendships with elderly members of the community, but also to provide a healing mechanism for those with illnesses such as memory loss. The students, all enrolled in an English service learning course, have named the program “HPU Lifelines.”

The students and senior citizens display one of their completed poems.

The students and senior citizens display one of their completed poems.

“The tangible health benefits to the program are numerous,” says Tayla Curran, a pre-med student at HPU. “Multiple studies show that reading and reciting poetry out loud can lower blood pressure, regulate heart and breathing rates, and activate regions of the brain associated with introspection and memory. Writing poetry has been shown to increase immune system function, improve mood and decrease pain in individuals suffering from chronic pain.”

At a session held in March at Pennybyrn, the students and the residents penned a poem about St. Patrick’s Day. Jean, a resident of Pennybyrn who hails from Boston, said she thinks about Irish coffee and green beer when St. Patrick’s Day comes to mind. Other residents discussed the food and unique aspects of the holiday. Together, they created and recited line by line this final poem:

Jessie Drew shares congratulatory handshakes and high fives with the senior citizens for the completion of two poems in the session.

Jessie Drew shares congratulatory handshakes and high fives with the senior citizens for the completion of two poems in the session.

Irish eyes are smiling

If you don’t wear green you’ll get pinched

St. Patrick’s Day tastes like corn beef and cabbage, Irish coffee and green beer

Everyone has a little Irish in them on St. Patrick’s Day.

At the end of that session, HPU student Jessie Drew told the residents at Pennybyrn that coming to visit them and write poetry with them is the best part of her week.

“We love visiting you,” she said.

The success of the program has produced benefits for both the senior citizens and the students. Curran notes that for students, the sessions have been a significant learning experience.

Jimmy Connor interacts with some of the residents after the session.

Jimmy Connor interacts with some of the residents after the session.

“The workshops allow us to apply the theories we have learned in class,” says Curran. “We’re learning how creating an empathetic bond with the patient, and truly listening and being present in the moment, is a benefit to both the patient and the caretaker. We’ve also made many new friends.”

That’s the ultimate goal that Allison Walker, English instructor who teaches the class, had in mind when she designed it.

“Our students have become empathetic listeners for these older adults,” says Walker. “Both have challenged each other to see joy and good in different circumstances. Even if this isn’t directly tied to a student’s major, we will all experience aging in our lives and the process of becoming older. It’s a human experience that they’ve now shared with someone else.”

The students are working with the senior citizens through the end of this month and will hold a final celebration for their progress on the HPU campus at 12:30 p.m. on April 28 in the Wilson School of Commerce.

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