This update has come from Gill Stanyard, Get Into Reading Project Worker with older people in Scotland
‘It’s snowing now.’ I say to Rosie. She lifts her head up and excitedly claps her hands together. ‘Ooh, how lovely.’ A few moments before Rosie tells me that she doesn’t need a book. ‘I’m blind, darling, but it doesn’t matter. I’ll just listen.’ It is 2.00 pm, Rosie and I are in the cosy sitting room at a day care centre in Oban for older people with dementia. Our arm-chairs are huddled together to make a wonky horseshoe, with nine other participants and three staff. We are reading together the ‘Road Not Taken’ by Robert Frost. As I read aloud, the words are punctuated by Rita’s copy of A Little, Aloud thumping onto the floor, as her fingers relax their grip in response to a sequence of power naps. Rosie tells us that her ‘yellow’ wood is an autumnal wood, scattered with yellow and orange leaves. Elspeth, who is sat opposite Maria, tells us that hers is full of daffodils, ‘lovely daffodils that are all golden because the sun is streaming through the trees.’ Arthur is sat next to his younger brother, Andy. Andy is quite the philosopher. ‘What does God do?’ he interjects. ‘What is the mind of God?’ ‘I think that may be one of the best questions I have ever heard.’ I say. Arthur simply stretches out his hand to find his brother’s. ‘No person can know the mind of God.’ Andy blinks a few times and appears comforted by the authoritative answer. Arthur then proceeds to tell me that the road in the poem is ‘a lonely road, with a woman walking down it, and she has a baby. A man is there too, walking with them and he’s got tackety boots on, and his footsteps echo behind him.’ Stunned, I ask ‘What is it in the poem that makes you think of that, Arthur? ‘ Cath, a care-worker leans in towards me and tells me ‘Arthur has written two books; that was a wee passage from one of them.’ ‘Why is it a lonely road?’ I ask him. Arthur sits bolt upright and softly stares at me ‘It’s a lonely road because I’m on a lonely road’ He folds back into his chair. ‘I’m on a lonely road too.’ Elspeth echoes, and shyly looks up at him. Arthur’s image gives me the shivers, those nice shivers that blossom at the back of your neck and tingle down your spine in response to strange co-incidence or meaning, for his description mirrors the scene from Silas Marner that I have chosen to read next; that of Molly trudging her way in the starlit snow to the New Year’s party, clutching her baby. ‘Hold onto that picture’ I say to Arthur, as our fingers all turn to the snowflakes on page 107.
I met June, the day centre manager, at an Alzheimer Scotland conference back in September. She signed up for a taster session of Get Into Reading, as part of the pilot project I am running across Scotland for people who have recently been diagnosed with dementia and for carers of people with the condition. 36 is the target number of sessions. Today is number 14. It has been a tremendous journey so far, from the steep braes of Banff in the North-East Highlands to Saltcoats, the tarnished temple of the ‘Kiss me quick hat’ on the West Coast. I have also made it twice to the Iris Murdoch Centre at the University of Stirling. A pioneering centre dedicated to cutting edge dementia research, which has the most amazing library. The overall response so far to the pilot has been overwhelmingly positive, with staff being amazed at the level of engagement and participation. In one of the early sessions, a lady read aloud and half-way clutched at her cheeks and announced ‘my face is going.’ Staff were naturally concerned , and urged her to stop reading and have a break. She paused and then looked back to the page and stroked her face and continued reading. When she had finished, she laid the book down on her lap and beamed at us. We showed our awe through applause. The workers told me after the session that she had experienced a stroke in the last year, and that usually when she felt her face ‘going all funny’ she would want to leave immediately and return home.
I have until February to reach the target number of tasters, and then my focus shifts to running two longer term pilot projects of three months, in my stomping ground of Dumfries and Galloway. The piece de resistance shall be a conference held in July, maybe at the Iris Murdoch Centre? I am gaining more and more in confidence as things which were just words on a Big Lottery application form are becoming real events.
I have been inspired by the tenacity and strength of some of the carers I have met, and the courage and ‘what will be’ attitude of people with dementia. I have realised that we do all need the same things, regardless of how old we are or where we live. We need kindness, tolerance, fun, opportunities to share things and to be accepted.
I’m back up north next week, to the salt-thrashed harbour of Arbroath and then to Dundee. I’m finishing off in Edinburgh with a special shared Christmas reading with a group of carers. Just all keep your fingers crossed for the weather, this is Scotland remember.
I shall leave the last words to Rosie, who as she excitedly buttons up her coat to leave to go the hairdressers for a perm, turns to face the room and asks ‘Where would we all be without poetry?’ It’s almost as good as one of Andy’s questions!
(Real names have not been used to protect anonymity.)