A Get Into Reading project worker describes her experience of reading in a Care Home, Winter 2008.
Arriving at the care home where I run a reading group for people with dementia this week felt a bit like entering a scene from Apocalypse Now. The main lounge is being re-decorated. This may not sound like much of an event, but for the 30 residents who spend the best part of their days in that lounge, the disruption to routine and unfamiliar surroundings that they have been moved into are hugely distressing. I was met with cries of ‘I want to go home’ and ‘Have you come to take me home now?’ Feeling horribly inadequate, I admitted that I had come to read poems, wondering what possible comfort that could bring just then.
The session began as I suspected it would. Without the support of the activities co-ordinator who usually attends the group (and who has been away in Australia for the past four weeks) I began by reading ‘The Village Blacksmith’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The group was unsettled. Patients were wandering in and out, conscious of the chaos behind the door, which had spread into minds which could not settle. But a funny thing happened in the midst of the chaos. Several individuals in the group seemed to remove themselves from it all and manage to disappear off into the poems almost as a break away from it all. Taking hold of the poems in their hands, they resolutely focused on these and ignored the disruptions.
One lady was captivated by the story of The Village Blacksmith, saying ‘Oh, well he has so many children. He must look after them and work hard. They aren’t into it as much as him, even though they like watching’. She was picking up on the description of the children watching the man at work with the sparks flying, on their way home from school. When I asked people what sort of man they thought the blacksmith was, Ella went back to the line, ‘His brow is wet with honest sweat’ and simply read it out to us all. It is a great summary of the man presented in the poem. Irene seemed to recognise the poem, calling it ‘The Village Smithy’ . She told us that she had had a job where she worked hard like the man in the poem – as a nurse in Southport Hospital .‘I worked very hard then, lots of running around. I trained in Southport. All my sisters were nurses too. I enjoyed it most of the time’. May was still reading the poem over and said ‘It is about something very sad and serious I think, not entirely happy’.
Ella wanted to read the next poem, ‘Happiness’ by Raymond Carver. Interestingly she seemed to get caught up in the feeling and emotion of the poem, and at one point, instead of reading ‘I think if they could, they would take/each other’s arm. ‘It’s early in the morning…’ she inserted her own line between them, saying ‘I think if they could, they would take/ each other’s arm/ and they would sing! These boys/It’s early in the morning…’. She then carried on reading and I thought it was wonderful that she had picked up this joy which seems to transcend explanation in the poem, and described what that felt like to her, mixing her own words with the poem. It worked perfectly. Later she kept going back to this line in the poem about the boys taking each other’s arm.
Finally we read ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’. I asked Irene if she liked the poem. ‘Yes, I thought it was lovely. It wasn’t like the others, it was about peace.’ I asked her what she would want to take with her if she was going to go to a place like the one in the poem. ‘Well, I would take a book of poems to read. That would keep me happy. And, if I could manage it, I would take a record player and a tape of poems being read by their authors!’ It struck me that the desire in the poem to ‘arise and go now… And live alone in the bee-loud glade’ must feel very real here, and that briefly, for a few quiet moments amid the chaos, we had found something of that in these poems which allowed us to disappear into another world which ‘the deep heart’s core’ quietly longs for.