Inspired chaplain turns patients' memories into poetry

Rev Phil Sharkey of Addenbrooke's Hospital Cambridge

The Reverend Phil Sharkey has launched a new poetry book inspired by conversations with patients living with dementia. - Credit: Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust

A hospital chaplain has turned hours of conversations he had with patients living with dementia into a poetry book. 

The Reverend Phil Sharkey listened to the recollections of 30 patients at Addenbrooke’s and Rosie Hospitals in Cambridge. 

From this, he decided to craft key words from those patients into verses they might like to have written, and used those words for his book, ‘Words to Remember – Poems Lost and Found’. 

“Many older people can remember learning, by heart, well known poems at school,” said Rev Sharkey.  

“These are by Rudyard Kipling, Edward Lear, or Henry Longfellow or, going back even further, nursery rhymes and limericks.” 

The book has been launched on National Poetry Day today (Thursday), which hopes to be of interest to those with loved ones living with dementia and those working with dementia patients. 

Rev Sharkey’s work is also expected to be used for teaching at Addenbrooke’s Hospital. 

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“Some (patients) 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,” he said.  

The Rev Phil Sharkey of Addenbrooke's Hospital Cambridge

The Reverend Phil Sharkey listened to the recollections of 30 patients at Addenbrooke’s and Rosie Hospitals in Cambridge to compile his poetry book. - Credit: Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust

“Some had no speech at all but listened and observed well to what was said and going on around them.”   

Rev Sharkey found himself isolated at home when the Covid-19 pandemic struck, working through Zoom and telephone. 

So, the poet, 70, returned to each poem and wrote one from himself in reply. 

Part of one of the poems, ‘Finger food – no sauce’ reads:  

'“Finger foods – no sauce” (sign over bed)  

A beckon over  

(sit beside me)  

Eye engagement and smile  

(hello and welcome)  

Pointing to a biscuit and fumbling  

(can you open this?)  

I open and offer a “Rich Shortie” – which  

He takes in arthritis cradled fingers, and  

Guides erratically to gaping toothless mouth.'

In reply, Rev Sharkey wrote: 

'Words for the wordless, food for the fingers,  

Crumbs for the soul,  

Thank you for inviting me in with smile  

Salve, not sauce.  

Silence shared, gestured guidance to deeper  

Communication,  

Your gathered fragments fed from a multitude of  

Memories.  

Who needs sauce with such rich recollections?'

‘Words to Remember – Poems Lost and Found’ is available in ring-bound paperback priced £10 and all proceeds will go to the Addenbrooke’s Charitable Trust. 

For more information, email: phil.sharkey@addenbrookes.nhs.uk  

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