Writing to Heal: Poems of Alzheimer's

Esther Altshul Helfgott
By Esther Altshul HelfgottJune 18, 2014

A writer and caregiver, Esther Altshul Helfgott shares how writing helped her heal after losing her husband to Alzheimer’s disease. By remembering, instead of “moving on,” Helfgott has learned to process, grieve and ultimately heal through poetry.  The following has been written by Helfgott for our readers.

I write you

onto the page

how else

to keep you with me —

memory fades your wrinkles

– from Listening to Mozart: Poems of Alzheimer’s (p.46)

Healing as Art

Maybe there will be a time when I won’t want to remember my Abe,  but I can’t imagine when that moment will be or what life would look like if my days weren’t blessed with the memory of him. Some people want to forget. When life’s circumstances change, they “move on” — as I’ve been told to do — to different people, different places and new mindsets. And that’s fine. If moving on helps people heal from their losses, more power to them; but putting the past behind me or shoving it aside doesn’t seem to work for me. I need to record my past, as if to solidify my history, document it. This is what helps me heal. Writing the past characterizes my grieving process; it helps me remember, which leads to healing a little bit at a time.

Abe will be gone four years this week. He died June 15, 2010, a day after his 82nd birthday; yet, some days his face is still in my hands, and I’m asking him for one more breath. Four years isn’t a long time. I continue to write in my diary, on my blog, and for my next book. As I wrote in my previous book, Dear Alzheimer’s: A Caregiver’s Diary & Poems (Cave Moon Press, 2013):

From an early age, my diary was my best friend. As an adult, poetry became my friend as well. Both writing forms were especially useful to me as I sought to understand the progression of my husband’s Alzheimer’s disease.

Now these writing forms help me understand my own aging process, as well as my relationship to Abe and to life’s circumstances generally.

Listening to Mozart

When I wrote Dear Alzheimer’s I was in the throes of the disease — from its probable beginnings in 2001 when I was running up and down the steps trying to care for Abe at home to the Assistant Living Stage when I was driving back and forth — an hour each way — every other day (2006 — 2008) and, finally, to the Nursing Home Years (2008-2010), which were difficult too, but easier because it was closer to our home. Piece of advice: If your loved one must be taken care of in a facility — and it usually comes to that — choose a facility close to your home. (Why I didn’t is another story). Meanwhile, while Abe slept — or was awake and didn’t speak — I wrote; and the writing kept me alive. Second piece of advice: You may not see yourself as a writer, but you can still record what’s happening with you and your loved one, and, please, don’t throw those pages out. You’ll appreciate them later on.

Writing Listening to Mozart: Poems of Alzheimer’s has a different thrust. Abe was gone by then, and I was having trouble accessing my feelings. I began writing poems in form, which I had rarely done before. I came upon a Japanese poetic form called TANKA, a little longer than haiku, but short enough that I could just fling a memory down and, immediately, it would speak a feeling back to me. For instance:

I loved

when we slept

back to back—

until morning

came  (p.15)


I want

to visit you—

but I don’t know

where you are  (p.18)

I paid little attention to the form’s instructions but kept to its spirit; in so doing, I was able to bring myself comfort and hold the words to my chest, as if I had Abe back with me again.

Dear Alzheimer’s reminds me of how I spent my time during the Alzheimer’s years, of the hard work it took to care for my husband. Listening to Mozart tells me that my soul and Abe’s will always be one. I hope you’ll use these books as  tools to record your journey and to find the best parts of your relationship with your loved one.

The book launch for Listening to Mozart: Poems of Alzheimer’s will be held in Seattle at the Elliott Bay Book Co. on Tuesday July 1, 2014 at 7 p.m. If you’re in Seattle, please join us.

Have you lost someone to Alzheimer’s? How did you process, grieve and heal? Please share your story with us in the comments below.

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Esther Altshul Helfgott

Esther Altshul Helfgott

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