Our first edition of 2017 and a special Anniversary Issue to mark 20 years of The Reader magazine.
This month The Reader features in The Psychologist magazine. CRILS’ Philip Davis discusses Literature in performance, psychology in action.
Can you combat chronic pain through Shared Reading? Kate, who runs the chronic pain reading group at Broadgreen Hospital in Liverpool tells us how it can be as effective as traditional therapies.
New research has suggested that taking part in social activities, including book groups and church groups, is linked with improved levels of health and well-being for people after retirement – and can be as important to health as staying physically active.
Researchers from the University of Queensland tracked the health of over 400 people aged 50 and over in England for six years after they had retired, comparing their health and quality of life with people of the same age who were still working. The study, published in the online journal BMJ Open, found that membership of social groups was associated with quality of life, and for every group no longer attended after retirement there was a 10% drop in a person’s quality of life six years later. As an example, if a person belonged to two separate social groups before they retired and continued with them for the next six years, their risk of death was found to be 2%. However this rises to 5% if they gave up membership of one group, and even higher at 12% if they stopped attending both.
The study also looked at how changes in exercise and physical health after retirement can affect a person’s risk of death – and found that the impact was the same as giving up membership of social groups. The researchers suggested that “practical interventions should focus on helping retirees connect to groups and communities that are meaningful to them.”
“I’ve got arthritis, which used to make me incredibly miserable, and I was always at the doctors moaning basically because I didn’t have anything else to do really, but I find if you have another interest and start meeting new people it does have an impact on how you actually feel, and you do feel better because you’ve got something nicer in your life than you had before.” – Shared Reading group member
“The group is the only time in my week that the conversation stimulates my mind and I never know what we will be talking about, it’s always something different.” – Shared Reading group member at a community centre in Barnet
It’s great to hear the findings of this study encouraging social inclusion, which supports research on Shared Reading from our partners at the Centre for Research into Reading, Literature and Society (CRILS) at the University of Liverpool. The cultural value of Shared Reading groups as a participatory and voluntary experience was examined, both in the impact it has on individuals and in creating a community. A number of factors unique to Shared Reading – such as the ‘liveness’ of the literature being read solely within the group itself, and the creativity and emotional responses that emerge from reading in action – combine to give benefits to group members in their social and cultural lives, which include re-invigorating a sense of purpose and improving an individual’s sense of value and meaning in life. Reading aloud in the groups offers a sense of achievement to members, as well as forging connections and friendships through discovering stories and poems together. The full report from CRILS is available to download on our website.
Shared Reading helping people to live longer? These findings would suggest that it’s at least a step in the right direction.
The new research from the University of Queensland can be accessed on BMJ Open.
The link between the arts and improved mental well-being is one which more professionals and volunteers are experiencing firsthand in the UK, and will be celebrated at the first national Arts in Health Conference and Showcase.
It’s great news to hear that the connection between poetry and mental wellbeing is being highlighted, thanks to the launch of ReLit and their anthology Stressed Unstressed, a volume of 150 poems selected to ease the mind and provide solace in troubling situations. Amongst those who have identified poems that have helped them to cope during times of stress are Melvyn Bragg, Ian McKellen and Stephen Fry.
The members of our Shared Reading groups are experiencing the power as well as the pleasure of poetry on a weekly basis, from community groups in libraries to patients on mental health wards and prisoners in high-security units. Reading poetry aloud as a group gives people access to powerful language, thoughts and feelings about what it is to be human, and in experiencing these complex meanings with others they can start to build – or rebuild – a better understanding of themselves and the world. Whichever way someone is struggling – on a particular day, week or on a longer-term basis – a poem can help to reach out on a personal, emotional level.
The best way to feel what a poem is and can do is to read it, with other people.
Take, for instance, the women at HMP Low Newton who read Mattresses by Jean Sprackland:
“Mattresses talks about everyone’s life but has a darkness that resonates with the women reading here. On the first reading one woman can’t hear the mattress but only a tale of a broken woman, lost and discarded. The others listen politely, sensitively, but then the group move on, back to the text, and the talk returns to mattresses, how they are an ‘archive’ of the everyday and everybody. The same woman’s expression changes to one of surprise: the idea that there could be other things to the poem, any poem, than what struck her at first reading is a genuinely new one. Another, deeper, insight follows: “I saw me”. What had been evident to everyone else in the room startles this woman to a laugh, and you can see her visibly awaken to new insights about herself and the potential of poetry.”
Or a group member on a mental health ward in Manchester, who found comfort in I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud by Wordsworth:
“On the morning of the group, he was on a 2:1 because he was ‘punching out and shouting at the staff’. He came in to the group, sat down and his focus was completely on the poem throughout. He was calm, reflective, and had read the whole of the poem aloud in a wonderfully clear voice. We were talking about places that we can remember that made us happy, and he told the story of going on picnics with his Mum, Dad and sister. By the end of the group, he only had one staff member with him, and showed no signs of aggression, upset, or distress.”
A great amount of the literature we use in Shared Reading groups deals with difficult subjects, evoking distress and often painful memories that do not seem on the surface designed to comfort or put the group member’s mind at ease. However below the surface different emotions rise up, showing how we sometimes need what is difficult to break through to the deeper part of us.
“We were reading war poetry and as I read John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields Ivy shifted in her seat, and I could tell before I finished the poem that she wanted to speak. One memory in particular, translated through the poetry, brought tears to her eyes as she shared it with the group:
‘I remember once I walked in on my Father as he was changing his shirt ready to go out with Mother. He shouted ‘Don’t come in, I’ll be down in a minute’, but it was too late, I had seen his side and there was a great hole there. I ran down the stairs to Mother crying and said ‘What happened to Dad? Did he fall down the stairs? And she said, ‘No love, that is a war wound’. I remember I was so upset.’
Her emotion at recalling the story of the wound demonstrated why, even though it took place when she was very young, this was an event which shaped her and has stayed with her over the years. I asked her if she was okay, if she was happy to continue reading the poems and she replied ‘Oh yes, I like them.’ When we read next Now to be still and rest, while the heart remembers by P.H.B. Lyon, she smiled and nodded and was keen to point out, ‘We celebrate every year, we never forget.’ “
Our research with partners CRILS at the University of Liverpool further demonstrates how reading poetry aloud can have powerful effects on people across all ages, backgrounds and life situations, from those living with dementia for whom poetry can stimulate emotional experiences in the present as well as rememberance and help to improve mood, to encouraging better social, emotional and psychological wellbeing amongst female prisoners. The shared reading of poems and literature has the effect of creating bonds and friendships, which our research has found contributes to a more positive outlook on life.
As the year is still fresh, here’s to more poetry, less stress and loneliness – and in reading together, sharing the comfort that comes from great literature on a wider scale.
‘Well I just love coming. It’s something to look forward to. It makes you think…when I’m here I don’t think of anything else.’ – shared reading group member in Melton Mowbray Library, Leicestershire
Each week our Shared Reading groups are taking place in libraries across the UK, connecting people of all ages and backgrounds with literature and one another. From groups improving health and wellbeing in West London to groups that help stimulate memories and reconnect older people with those closest to them in Wiltshire and the South West, shared reading in library settings is creating a variety of positive impacts for individuals and within local communities.
Researching Reading Groups
Are you a facilitator or a member of a Shared Reading group? A small collective of experienced researchers with backgrounds in education and lifelong learning are currently exploring the part that libraries play in supporting reading groups, including shared reading groups, in the community and in promoting reading for pleasure. Their research will document what is currently happening and highlight best practice in this important area of libraries’ work.
To help, they want to find out more about why people join Shared Reading groups and why they keep coming. If you have a story about your experience of Shared Reading in libraries, please do get in touch.
For more information, please contact Lesley Dee: firstname.lastname@example.org
Here are some examples of what’s happening around the country
During shared reading sessions, people may identify with the experiences revealed by characters in literature and find a way of linking it to their own lives – perhaps subconsciously. Over time, and with the help of the support of others in the group and the texts that are read, they may feel confident enough to find their voice on difficult subjects and discover different perspectives within themselves. A is one of our regular group members at Seacombe Library, Wirral:
“A, who attends the group each week, is a keen reader and it’s always a pleasure to share a story with him. Recently we read an extract from Dickens’s Great Expectations that introduces the reader to Miss Havisham and her self-imposed seclusion at Satis House. I asked A what he made of Miss Havisham and why he thought she lived her life in that way. ‘She could be scared’, was his response. I agreed with him and asked why he thought that was the case. ‘Because she’s stuck in the past; she still wears the same clothes and doesn’t want to move on’.
I asked A to imagine he were Pip and standing before Miss Havisham. ‘What advice would you give her?’ I asked. ‘To move forward slowly’. I thought this was a really insightful comment, and perhaps one that mirrors A’s own experience. We ended the group with A asking if he could keep his copy of the extract so he could read it again in his own time. It was with this request that I realised how much the group had meant to him.”
It’s not only our readers who are benefitting from sharing stories in their local library, but also volunteers – over in Leicestershire, our project with Leicestershire Libraries is almost entirely run by volunteers, creating hundreds of reading experiences and lasting friendships across the county, including the weekly group in Oadby Library:
“What was the best thing for me was seeing, possibly for the first time, the real benefit of shared reading. B said she just listened with her eyes closed to me reading which she found very helpful. By the end of the session her colour had literally returned and she forgot herself and, helped by D’s personality and the literature, became animated and laughed. Equally S and D had apparently been reading poems to each other the previous day and D has joined a poetry appreciation group, inspired by reading poetry in our group.”
We’re delighted to announce the news that Social Business Trust has awarded £1.5 million worth of funding and business support to The Reader, allowing us to reach many more people across the country through shared reading.
We’ve been working with SBT since 2013, when their initial funding and investment of £280,000 gave us the learning and support needed to grow and strengthen the core of what we do. Expertise from SBT’s corporate partners including British Gas have enabled us to develop our projects, measure our impacts and help people who need the benefits that our unique and innovative shared reading model can bring. Thanks to continued support from SBT through this new package of funding, we’ll be able to more than double the number of people we reach from 11,000 a year to 27,000 by 2018.
Adele Blakeborough MBE, CEO of Social Business Trust has seen the effects of shared reading for herself:
“It is incredibly moving and compelling to see the difference The Reader makes to thousands of vulnerable people through its simple model of shared reading groups. We know there is scope to expand The Reader’s important work more extensively across the country and are delighted to support the organisation to achieve that growth.”
Our shared reading groups take place in a variety of settings around the UK including prisons, mental health centres, care homes and local communities. The simple model of reading aloud in facilitated groups is proven to support positive mental health and wellbeing, combating isolation, calming aggression and helping people with dementia. Through the act of reading on a regular basis with others, people can connect with a better understanding of themselves, realise opportunities they might not have thought possible and make changes in their lives.
We’re already helping people like Angela to do this:
Angela from Liverpool has bipolar affected disorder and experienced a full nervous breakdown three years ago. She joined a group at The Reader a year ago and then started volunteering on reception at our head office. As a result of building her confidence and experience, she is about to begin a paid job.
Angela says: “I saw my consultant for the first time in 6 months the other day and I don’t think he could believe the change in me. If I was putting percentages on my progress over the last year I would say 30% natural improvement and pills and 70% down to coming here. If I hadn’t found The Reader, who knows what I would be doing now?”
Thanks to our continued funding from SBT, we’ll be able to help even more people in many more places across the UK.
Professor Philip Davis, Director of the Centre for Research into Reading, Literature and Society (CRILS) at University of Liverpool, will appear at Age UK’s For Later Life 2015 Conference this November showcasing the latest research on the relationship between literature, shared reading and dementia.
The theme for this year’s For Later Life conference is brain ageing and dementia, and will consider how health and care services can best help older people in an increasingly ageing society to live as well as possible with cognitive decline, in many cases alongside other health conditions.
CRILS is the research partner of The Reader Organisation and most recently published Read to Care, a report evaluating the impacts of engaging with literature, specifically the shared reading model introduced by The Reader Organisation, amongst people living with dementia. We have been reading in dementia settings since 2006, with the model adapted to make the reading experience more easily accessible and meaningful for group members involved. Examining how shared reading can contribute to an improvement in quality of life for people living with dementia, Read to Care places particular consideration on the impacts of reading poetry in shared reading groups upon mental processes including memory, emotion and personal awareness.
Amongst other findings, Read to Care highlights the connection between literature and memory for those with dementia, whereby poetry that is read acts as a ‘trigger’ to bring participants back to life for the moment they are experiencing, as well as recalling moments from their past. This is evidenced by group members taking part in the study, including Polly, whose story is recounted by the reading group leader:
Polly sometimes struggled to focus on the words on the page but would often comment on the difference that it made when she heard a poem read well. On another occasion Polly responded to certain lines as others were reading the poems, and would comment in sudden little phrases: ‘Oh isn’t that lovely!’
I asked her a question a bit later and she seemed slightly startled, as if she had been thinking. She then said: ‘Do you know what I think. When you’re young, why do you grow up?’ This felt like a very good question to be asking: perhaps somewhat in the spirit of a child, but from an adult’s perspective. The losses in dementia are often like the gains in development when, in the child, they come and go because not yet firmly established as acquired skills. Polly started to speak towards the end of the session of several childhood memories. She spoke of her father, who I had not heard her mention before. He had had a stroke when she was still only young, and Polly said that she couldn’t understand, as a child, why he couldn’t speak. She said there were times when she did not know where he was; she seemed to imply that it felt as if he was not there.
Professor Davis will discuss the relationship between shared reading and dementia and present findings from Read to Care in ‘The arts: case studies in dementia care’ as part of For Later Life 2015 on Wednesday 18th November at BMA House, London. The conference will showcase new approaches in the prevention and treatment of age-related cognitive impairment, innovative policy proposals and promising practice ideas, and the latest research findings.
Places registered before 23rd September 2015 benefit from reduced rates. For more information about the For Later Life Conference, see the Age UK website: www.ageuk.org.uk/forlaterlife or download the conference brochure.
For more about Read to Care and research into shared reading, visit http://www.thereader.org.uk/what-we-do-and-why/research
The North West has been recognised as a leading region for social enterprises in the UK, and The Reader Organisation is proud to stand amongst the top regionally based social enterprises listed in the Natwest SE100 Index.
The Natwest SE100 Index tracks the performance, growth, financial progress and positive impacts of social businesses across the UK, breaking down data by regions and sectors. It includes data from nearly 1,000 businesses and organisations to date, 83 in the last year hailing from the North West, and all of which can be viewed on an open-access platform. You can view and search the Index here.
Over the past financial year, the North West social enterprise contingent has recorded an average growth of 9.6%, a total combined turnover of over £717 million and a combined regional profit increase from £62.9 to £69 million.
The Reader Organisation is listed in the Health and social care sector of the SE100 Index, one of the top three sectors for profit growth in the North West in the last year. Each week our shared reading groups – running in the North West and elsewhere across the UK – are reaching people with social, mental and physical issues in a variety of settings, providing an alternative and cost effective solution to society-wide problems, stimulating wellbeing and social interaction and providing access to great literature. As one of our members puts it:
“The reading group mends holes in the net you would otherwise fall through.”
Our Founder and Director Jane Davis comments on the value of being included in the SE100:
“The SE100 allows social enterprises to benchmark themselves against others and compete with the commercial sector. Profiling the success of social enterprise is a step towards changing people’s attitude to social businesses. Social enterprise is the way forward – capitalism, as we have known it, is not going to survive. Something else has to happen – people must become more important than profit.”
We’re delighted to be part of the thriving social enterprise sector in the North West, and look forward to building on the region’s success in the oncoming year with our continued development of Calderstones Mansion to become the International Centre for Reading and the opening of the Storybarn – the region’s first interactive story centre for children.