Burns' Night: How A Scottish Poet's Writing Is Changing Dementia Care

Celebrated annually on January 25th, the day of Robert Burns’ birth in 1759, Burns’ Night honours the life and literary contributions of the Scottish poet, who is recognised as one of the best in the English language. A Burns Supper, a formal dinner that includes reciting Burns’ poems, singing his songs, and sipping Scotch whisky, is customarily held to commemorate it.

The intriguing application of Burns’ poetry to dementia treatment is one of Burns’ Night’s highlights. A decline in cognitive function, such as memory, language, and problem-solving skills, is referred to as dementia. Although it is frequently linked to ageing, there are other causes as well, including drug misuse, neurological disorders, and head injuries.

According to a University of Glasgow study, dementia patients’ cognitive performance and quality of life significantly improved when they took part in a programme that entailed reading, performing, and discussing Burns’ poetry.

Researchers feel that Burns’ poetry can aid to excite the brain and engage the senses because of its rich use of sensory imagery and evocative language. This is especially crucial for those who are suffering from dementia, since they may lose their capacity to perceive and comprehend language in addition to experiencing a loss of sensory function.

Apart from its cognitive advantages, Burns’ poetry is believed to provide therapeutic benefits for individuals suffering from dementia. Love, grief, and nostalgia are common topics in his poetry, which can be especially meaningful for those suffering from dementia, as they may experience memory loss and identity problems.

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Poetry has long been known for its capacity to pique the senses and engage the mind. It has been applied in diverse therapeutic contexts to assist individuals with a range of emotional and cognitive problems. Burns is a significant national figure in Scotland, where the usage of his poems has a special cultural significance. As a result, numerous initiatives and programmes honouring Burns have been created, using his poetry to treat dementia and other cognitive illnesses.

The benefits of reading have been demonstrated by another study conducted by the Centre for Research into Reading, Information, and Linguistic Systems at University of Liverpool. One such benefit is a notable decrease in the intensity of dementia symptoms.

Professor Philip Davis said: “The advantage of poetic language is that it triggers the articulation of memories, feelings and thought.”

In Scotland, there are over 90,000 dementia sufferers, with over 3200 of them being younger than 65.

Burns Memory Clinic

Established in 2015 at the University of Glasgow, the clinic helps individuals with dementia enhance their quality of life and cognitive function using a combination of cognitive and sensory stimulation techniques, including the use of Burns’ poetry. It has garnered considerable praise for its creative approach to treatment and has been successful in aiding a large number of dementia patients. Numerous studies have also been conducted on it, which have shed light on the efficacy of utilising Burns’ poetry as a therapeutic aid.

Additional Burns-Themed Projects

His poetry is used by a number of Burns-themed programmes, like the Burns Memory Clinic, to assist those who are suffering from dementia. These include the Burns for the Brain programme created by the Scottish Dementia Working Group and the Burns 2gether programme created by the Alzheimer Scotland organisation. Burns’ poetry is used in both programmes to arouse the senses and engage the intellect. They have been effective in enhancing the cognitive abilities and quality of life of dementia patients.

Memories Spark Joy At Burns’ Night Celebration

In 2021 Reminiscences and a special musical with a Burns’ Night theme brought back joyful memories for West Ridings residents with dementia.

All units at the Home commemorated Robert Burns’ birthday on 25th January with a traditional feast of haggis, neeps and tatties and a wee dram of whisky.

On the other hand, the festivities in the Wensleydale unit were poignant since the residents had a multisensory experience. They were treated to music and poetry in addition to the flavours and scents of the Scottish cuisine.

The performances, according to Activities Coordinator Karen Potter, evoked memories and started conversations.

“Music is incredibly therapeutic for people living with dementia as the brain areas linked to musical memory often aren’t affected by their condition.”

“We played a selection of Scottish bagpipers and traditional music, which the Residents responded to enthusiastically. We also got talking about their travels to Scotland in the past.”

“It was great to hear stories of trips to Loch Lomond and other beautiful spots in Scotland. Residents really enjoyed sharing their memories and listening to the Burns poems we read out.”

In addition to the music, Staff entertained the residents with some spontaneous Scottish dancing. As the ladies tried their hand at the Highland Fling, there was a lot of laughter.

“It was an enjoyable afternoon, and we had some lovely responses from Residents.”

“It was great to know that Residents in other units were also celebrating Burns’ Night at the same time. Although we couldn’t all be together, we were sharing the same fun-filled experiences.”


In conclusion, Burns’ Night is an important cultural event that honours the life and works of the Scottish poet Robert Burns. It serves as a reminder of poetry’s therapeutic value—particularly that of Burns’ poetry—in the treatment of dementia. Through programmes like the Burns Memory Clinic and Burns 2gether, Burns’ poetry is utilised to help people with dementia enhance their cognitive function and quality of life.

About the author : Andrew Warren