It’s Dementia Awareness Week (17th-23rd May), and this year’s theme is Do Something New, emphasising the fact that dementia needn’t prevent anyone from trying new things or taking enjoyment from the hobbies they already love.
Shared reading is a wonderful way to connect people living with dementia to the deep pleasure literature can provide, stimulating thoughts, feelings, emotion and memory. In our groups specially for people living with dementia and their carers, poems are read by the leading project worker to the group. Often these poems will be ones recalled from childhood or another significant life period. The rhyme, rhythm and compressed language of poetry helps to stimulate and maintain concentration, sparking off traces of memory. As well as remembering their past, group members are encouraged to enjoy the literature for what it is in the present moment. Effects of shared reading in this way include an increased sense of calm, reduced agitation and increased social interaction with others who are enjoying literature in the same way.
The power of poetry to give voice and a space for expression to people living with dementia comes through in Joan’s Story, recounted by one of our project workers sharing reading in a care home in Merseyside:
We were reading Wordsworth’s classic and much-used poem ‘Daffodils’. ‘Did you like it, Joan?’ asked the activities co-ordinator, to which Joan responded, very audibly – ‘Yeah. There’s something about it, I can’t explain.’ This felt like a moment of progress, even though or especially because it was about not being able to explain and also being able to say that. Poetry of course is good at creating that effect for any of us, whatever our supposed mental ability or disability: poetry is, as it were, content with making something become present though not fully explicable. After the group, the activities co-ordinator told me that she had never heard Joan able to string so many words together, let alone read aloud words from a page, and in the right order. Staff at the care home have since told me that Joan has a framed copy of ‘The Daffodils’ up on the wall in her room.
During the session Joan also responded well to the poem ‘Your Dresses’ by Carol Ann Duffy: I worked through each stanza, each separate ‘dress’, of the poem and picked out words or phrases with my finger, asking her questions as we went. She seemed to really enjoy looking at the words in this way, and responded either verbally by saying, ‘Yes, very nice’, or by gesturing as if she was trying on a dress in a window. Joan also began to pick parts of the poem to read on her own, and seemed to be trying to say something about it – that she did like it, but seemed frustrated that she couldn’t wear the dresses, or get inside it in some way. At the end of the session we read ‘Everything Touches’ by Roger McGough, to which she listened intently with a big smile on her face. I could tell she liked the poem, but also that some of it made her quite emotional. She said ‘I’m frightened’ at one point, but when I asked her what of, she changed again and seemed to be smiling and happy, reading the last three stanzas of it aloud on her own. On our way out of the room the staff member who had been in the session commented to me, ‘It is amazing – there is definitely something still there, and the poems really seem to bring it out.’
More evidence of how shared reading can improve the quality of life of people living with dementia can be found in Read to Care, an evaluation report of several shared reading groups across Merseyside compiled by the Centre for Research into Reading, Literature and Society (CRILS) at University of Liverpool, available to download on our website.
We currently run open community groups for people living with dementia and their carers in Devon, Wiltshire, and Barnet, North London. A new weekly group is starting at Manor Drive Methodist Church Hall, Whetstone on Thursdays, from 21st May, 10-11.30am.