I’ve been reading in the news this week about the increasing evidence that people who stay in education longer are better able to compensate for the effects of dementia on the brain. In the last three weeks two separate studies have been released, supporting mounting research from the past decade which has consistently shown that the more time you spend in education, the lower the risk of dementia. There is a particular focus on ‘literacy’ within education in both studies. Ruth Sutherland, chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Society, said
We now need more research to find out why an education can make the brain more ‘dementia resistant’. Until then the message appears to be stay in school.
This work supports the idea of life-long learning, and it is important that reading and informal learning are not seen as preventative measures only. There is no reason that a person should stop enjoying these once a diagnosis of dementia is made. In fact there is strong evidence to suggest that informal learning enhances both the health and quality of life of people in day care and residential settings, perhaps especially important for the most vulnerable older people and those in the more advanced stages of dementia.
700,000 people have dementia in the UK. This figure is expected to rise to 1m by 2021, and with dementia costs currently reaching £17bn a year, experts say the condition is the health and social care challenge of the 21st century. With figures like that, it is not surprising that prevention is going to be a key concern for the government moving forward. But it is essential that the quality of care for those living in residential care is addressed and that funding is available to provide good quality services which will work to improve the well being of residents in care.
The Reader Organisation has been delivering Get Into Reading in care homes and with people living with dementia since 2006. At present we are running 22 groups in care homes working with elderly people on Merseyside. Get Into Reading is not designed to improve literacy or take the place of formal education, it is about engaging with books on a deep, personal level. Reading for serious pleasure. Not just something to do to pass the time, but meaningful activity; the opportunity to think and ponder one line, one word of poetry and explore it fully. Our work is not just about reminiscence, though poems do often trigger memories and thoughts about the past. But it goes further than that. Poetry can help a person to communicate how they are feeling right here and now. They can provide a language for the present, as well as a view on the past.
In one group session at a care home for people living with dementia we read the poem February Afternoon by Edward Thomas. People liked the line
‘Time swims before me, making as a day
A thousand years…’
At the end of the poem, two ladies were deep in conversation and then one turned to the group and said ‘You’ve hit it on the head because that is just how we were feeling this morning!’ Another lady replied ‘Ah yes, but then you look back over your life and it’s hard to believe it lasted more than a few minutes, it went so fast!’ We talked about this for a while and one group member suddenly said:
I understand now. I sometimes find it hard to understand things, but we’ve talked about it together and it’s helped. Sometimes in the afternoon when you try and talk about something it doesn’t drop – then you talk about it here and it sinks in and you can understand. I loved the way he puts something down here that we can read about and know something of.
The need for not only activity, but social interaction with others in care home settings has been well documented. In a report on the quality of life in care, Help the Aged state that
Recreation, social and community activities and personal development are essential to quality of life for people of all ages and the benefits to the health and well being among older people, even in advanced frailty, have been demonstrated. However, studies suggest that almost 50 per cent of care home residents’ time is spent asleep, socially withdrawn or inactive, with only three per cent spent on constructive activity.
Help the Aged (2006) My Home Life: Quality of life in care home, p.43.
This statistic is worrying and suggests that despite all the evidence, much more still needs to be done to create a culture where older people are not excluded, but engaged in meaningful activity and interacting with others.
Through our training programme we are equipping day care and residential staff to develop the confidence and skills to deliver Get Into Reading in their own settings. To find out more about our training, please contact Casi Dylan firstname.lastname@example.org
If you would like to know more about our work in care homes, please contact me: email@example.com