By: Alyea Pierce, Assistant Director at Rutgers University
Alyea Pierce is an author, public speaking and poetry coach, and performer. She is the Assistant Director for Department of Leadership and Experiential Learning at Rutgers University. She describes her purpose with spoken word as one to provide a voice for the unheard – those silenced in some way. In her work, she strives to tell stories as truthfully as possible, whether in describing experiences with race, gender, cancer, autism, or Alzheimer’s. In this TEDx talk in Huntsville, Alabama, Alyea shares a spoken word piece about overcoming the challenges of Alzheimer’s within her family.
What was the writing process like for this work?
This piece specifically took me 4–5 years to write. It took me sitting and actively listening. I would spend time with my grandmother, listen to her, watch her, and appreciate all that she is, was, and everything in between. I also needed to listen to family members’ and doctors’ stories via interviews on YouTube. I needed to share my own story while keeping it broad enough, and still research-based for others to connect with and remember they are not alone.
What do you feel is missing conversations on health and aging?
I believe people’s voices are missing from the conversation. Fixing this may mean taking the time to sit down, talk, and most of all, actively and genuinely listen to those experiencing Alzheimer’s, or those who are aging. But, I will also say that my mother works in nursing homes, and although, employees like herself are taken for granted, stressed, tired, and though, many do amazing work, those they are taking care of, can feel very silenced. They can feel invisible. Sometimes it is a matter of asking someone what they need or acknowledging they had a life before this. All in all, you can have statistics, but narratives are everlasting.
How do you think society’s perception of Alzheimer’s differs from reality?
I think that Alzheimer’s carries this constant negative connotation; people have this perception that when someone of an older age develops Alzheimer’s, it is downhill automatically. The family lives in the past tense and can rarely live in the present moment. It is a hard reality, but I think in the misconception, we miss that there is fluidity. Within this person in front of you, there’s happiness in them, and they can feel. In preparing for the future, we forget that there’s someone right in front of us.
What drew you to spoken word to work through these themes?
As extroverted and loud as I am, I always held in my emotions. So, I started off with just writing, and what stuck with me was that I could say whatever I wanted. Before my grandmother had Alzheimer’s, I had these thoughts and distortions of what Alzheimer’s looked like, and I wanted to share that story of growth. I remember the day I noticed when she started to forget. I remember the look on her face as she fought from within. I remember the day she forgot my name, and what it felt like. There are many moments that I remember and with spoken word, I ground these universal experiences in a personal way.
What about spoken word tells your story that written poetry cannot?
There is a constant debate in the poetry world between the spoken and written word. Through my spoken word, my theatrics paint a picture, which in turn allow the audience to truly see what I am feeling. And specifically in this TEDxHuntsville performance and what I chose to give you, you can feel the dichotomous relationship between pain and love and what I feel for my grandmother.
Do you think that such a medium is the best way to discuss these personal, yet universally experienced, themes?
I use performance to create change. I believe art is a great tool to create space and discuss universal and difficult personal narratives. In art, there is always a strong connection to advocacy and solidarity; you’re fighting for something. With my spoken word, I have a moment where I can create a call to action. It calls on educators and doctors to engage in a conversation beyond statistics and treatments, which are extremely important and valuable. However, I also use this medium to share story-a story that tells families they are not alone, and that I, too, have felt those same feelings of thankfulness, gratefulness, sadness, and happiness.