August 13, 2015, by Charlotte Anscombe

How shared reading could be helping to bring back memories for people with dementia

A book is a truly magical thing. It has the ability to transport you to another time or place and to instantly evoke memories of where and when you first perused a particular paperback or finished a favourite novel. Now, a new partnership between The University of Nottingham and Nottingham City Council is harnessing the power of words on the page as part of an unusual therapeutic intervention at a city care home.

Staff and students from the University’s School of English have been piloting a shared reading initiative at The Oaks Residential Care Home in St Ann’s, which has seen them reading aloud literature including stories and poems to groups of residents with dementia. The shared reading experience is aimed at connecting people to literature and to each other but crucially also has the potential to unearth memories which might otherwise remain submerged in the mind.

The initiative has been led by Dr Kevin Harvey in the School of English. He said: “Of all the variety of literary texts (short stories, poems and plays) read aloud in the groups, poetry appears to work the best. The rhythmic cadences and transporting quality of verse are particularly appealing to group members, who often speak affectionately about the poems learned and loved in childhood.

“The poet WH Auden famously observed that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’. Poetry might not be the universal panacea to all the world’s social and political ills, but it can make differences to people’s lives, helping them, in the context of dementia care, to reconnect with memories and enabling them to articulate a sense of self.

“The participants appear to be enjoying and getting a lot from the sessions so far. They’ve commented on how they find it relaxing and easeful, and how it’s enabled them to remember and reconnect with past experiences. In other instances, participants have started to recite from memory spontaneously — poems they learned in childhood and might not have engaged with for many years.”

Shared reading was pioneered by The Reader Organisation, a social enterprise associated with Liverpool University. Shared reading connects people to literature and with each other. It takes place in a diverse range of settings, including hospitals, community centres, GP surgeries, residential care homes, corporate boardrooms and even supermarkets.

Shared reading has proved especially popular in care homes and day centres, and there are hundreds of such groups now in operation up and down the country. The therapeutic benefits of shared reading are being increasingly recognised: not only does shared reading provide pleasure and bring people together it also promotes physical and mental wellbeing. Studies have shown, for instance, how people with dementia report positive experiences in shared reading groups, describing, how being exposed to literary language has helped them to ease their minds and relax, as well as provoking concentration. Similar effects have been noted by carers who have described how, for participants regularly engaged in shared reading activities, the presentation of dementia symptoms have become noticeably less pronounced.

The University’s School of English established a community shared reading group in Lenton which has been running for around three years, but this is the first time they have been involved in reading with people with dementia.

The new initiative builds on the University’s existing relationship with Nottingham City Council, as well as cementing links with the Dementia Research Network based at the Institute of Mental Health, based on the University’s Jubilee Campus.

Councillor Alex Norris, Portfolio Holder for Adults, Health and Community Sector, said: “A project like this is truly invaluable to the residents at The Oaks.

“The group is proving very successful and residents are actively engaged with the readings and poems, these have encouraged interactions and helped residents to reminiscence and share their memories during lengthy conversations.

“Working with the University on this initiative has been exciting and it’s so positive to see how beneficial a project like this is.”

A resident at the Oaks said: “I liked the stories. The readings have brought up lots of memories from when I was at school. When we read the literature I get a viewpoint in my mind, a picturesque view. I think of my schooldays and my childhood, which makes me feel happy.”

The Oaks in St Ann’s provides residential care for elderly, frail people and specialises in care for people with dementia. Carers are fully trained in dementia care and provide residents with 24-hour support. They also offer a support group for families and carers living with a person with dementia.

It also provides a diverse range of activities that cater to residents varying and ever changing needs. The team there is committed to finding new and exciting ways to enable residents to lead full and active lives whilst supporting them to retain their independence.


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