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Cambridge patients’ fragmented memories inspire new book of poetry

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A hospital chaplain who spent hours chatting to patients with dementia was so moved that he turned their memories into poetry.

The Rev Phil Sharkey, of Cambridge’s Addenbrooke’s and Rosie Hospitals, listened intently to the fragmented recollections of 30 patients, and crafted key words into verses they might like to have written.

And when Covid struck, and 70-year-old Rev Sharkey found himself isolated at home and working via Zoom and telephone, he returned to each poem and wrote one from himself in reply.

Now the collection, the result of a poetry and spirituality initiative funded by the Royal Voluntary Service, has been turned into a book called Words to Remember – Poems Lost and Found.

It has been launched today (October 7) – National Poetry Day – and is expected to be of interest to the caring professions and people who live with loved ones with dementia. It will also be used for teaching in Addenbrooke’s.

In an introduction, Rev Sharkey, who initiated patient conversations by asking about poems they could recall, says: “Many older people can remember learning, by heart, well known poems at school, by Rudyard Kipling, Edward Lear, or Henry Longfellow or, going back even further, nursery rhymes and limericks.

The Rev Phil Sharkey, of Cambridge’s Addenbrooke’s and Rosie Hospitals
The Rev Phil Sharkey, of Cambridge’s Addenbrooke’s and Rosie Hospitals

“Some had speech, but it was difficult to discern a coherence in the broken and lost words that they used to describe themselves and their experience. Some had no speech at all but listened and observed well to what was said and going on around them.”

The book features a foreword from Girton College chaplain and poet, singer-songwriter, priest, and academic, The Rev Dr Malcolm Guite, and a commendation from Cambridge counsellor and supervisor, Jim Holloway. It contains stitched images of elderly people by Georgie Meadows, which were on display in Addenbrooke’s in July.

Words to Remember – Poems Lost and Found is published in-house by Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and is available in ring-bound paperback priced £10. All proceeds go to Addenbrooke’s Charitable Trust.

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