Poetry and Dementia: A Little, Aloud

I have written a few times about Mother’s positive response when I read to her, particularly when I read poetry.

When she first moved into the very sheltered housing scheme years ago, I was asked what sort of things she enjoyed. I said then that she liked  to be read to, and suggested some of the books on her shelves; mainly ones about animals; The Owl and the Pussycat; but also the Bible.

But in those three years no member of staff has read to her; and when I have suggested more recently that they could read her poems, they have shied away as though I were suggesting something weird and dangerous.

So, I have come to understand that most of the staff, maybe all, are not confident about reading aloud. I suppose I could leave it at that, but this is after all something that benefits my mother, who will soon be 91 and so I have tried to come up with other solutions. I suggested that they could look for someone who would be happy to read poetry to a group of  residents; maybe a performance poet. There was no response, so I asked again.

I got an answer the other day from the new manager saying the tenants were ‘against this idea’, which led me  to believe she too is not comfortable about reading aloud. The word ‘against’ seemed very strong and inappropriate. I do wonder how residents were approached, and what they thought they were being offered.

I guessed that Mother was not the only person living with dementia who responds to verse. Oliver Sacks’ book didn’t help, nor did any of the other books and leaflets I have accumulated on dementia.  Maybe there had been studies; something which could demonstrate to the manager that I’m not just a pushy relative (I am, but this is about my mother after all, and I don’t know anyone else who is fighting her corner in this way), but there’s something in this that would help her to do her job more effectively, and benefit other residents, with or without dementia.

I surfed. And found. The Reading Organisation has been holding reading groups in care homes for four years. The work they are doing is making a real difference to people like my mother, and what I read on their pages made me determined to pursue my efforts to get the manager to reconsider.

Read it here yourself, and see what you think.#mce_temp_url#

They are also publishing a book this week called A Little, Aloud, which is described as an anthology of prose and poetry for reading aloud to someone you care for.


I’ve just ordered my copy.

19 thoughts on “Poetry and Dementia: A Little, Aloud

  1. Carry on gently persuading, Isobel. It’s ridiculous to be suspicious of someone reading aloud – look at all the books on tape and recorded readings for a start!!

    It’s a lovely thing to do for someone, reading to them. It must be a subliminal reminder of those very early childhood days having stories read and understanding them for the first time.

    Reading poetry aloud is bringing it to life and making it really personal and meaningful.

    • Thanks Jan. I have been composing a very gentle and encouraging email.
      I think it’s more to do with the staff’s own feelings about reading aloud and also poetry. The woman, Katie Clark, who I spoke to today at the Readers’ Organisation, who was lovely, said it is quite common. One of the hurdles to get over is staff attitude.
      Did you read the links?

  2. If you’re not able to have the Reading Organisation deliver a session for the residents en masse, could you see whether they would do something just for your Mother – or could you ask Help the Aged (or another charity) if they could send a volunteer specifically to do this?

    • Yes, I was wondering about that. I imagine it depends on how many volunteers they have in the area, and how much of a priority they see my mother as. The Reading Organisation doesn’t have any groups in her area at the moment, but it’s such inspiring stuff, maybe one will start.

  3. Did you say that your Mother belonged to a church? Would there be anybody in the congregation who would take this on if you asked the Minister?

    Or, thinking completely out of the box, would there be an English teacher, or retired English teacher, in the area who might appreciate the task and the audience? Finding them might be difficult.

  4. Hello Pseu and Sophie
    I spoke to Age UK today. They have given me a number to ring. Slight problem that the times I can call and the times this person is available don’t overlap much, but I am looking forward to seeing if someone could come and read to my mother once a week for an hour. It depends if they have anyone who would be interested, but my hopes are quite high!
    My mother used to belong to a church Sophie before she moved. Now she attends services in one of the communal rooms at the scheme.
    But my trump is that a performance poet I know has said he would be willing to go there and do a session with a group to show management that it can work!
    So, we shall have to hope the manager does not refuse…

  5. Hi, Isobel.

    More power to your elbow. I read the article in your link and it is shocking, if true,that ‘…….some residents spent less than two minutes in every six hours talking to staff or other residents.’

    In your own post, you write – ‘I do wonder how residents were approached, and what they thought they were being offered.’ I think that might well be the problem in the case of your mother’s sheltered housing scheme. An unwilling management combined with a tenant’s group with a Victor Meldrew or three, perhaps?

    Good luck with the performance poet and I await your report with interest.

    I copied my entry for Bilby’s CW competition on Boa’s site to my own one, in case you did want to have a look.

    • I fear it probably is true in many cases John. It’s one of the reasons my mother has lunch in the dining room, so she is socialising every day.
      But i think people underestimate how much people with dementia benefit from stimulus, and also how much they can do and enjoy. They are battling with a bewildering condition. The least the rest of us an do is to endeavour to find ways where we can still have meaningful, enjoyable communication. When staff heard me encouraging my mother to recite the Lord’s My Shepherd to distract her from having a dressing changed, they first looked at me as though I were mad, and then in astonishment at my mother when she joined in.
      My friend’s mother, who died recently and also had dementia, could sing the whole of the Polish national anthem once she was started off – she was Polish; a refugee from the end of the second world war.
      Thank-you. I shall keep your story for the weekend, and hope I get a good connection when I am afloat.

  6. Dear Isobel,

    It is great to hear that you are working so hard on this and pursuing it despite the obstacles because you beleive in it and have seen it at work. At The Reader Organisation we have been delivering Get Into Reading, read aloud reading groups, in care homes and working with people living with dementia for over five years. The responses we have had have been amazing and very moving. I do hope that the new book, ‘A Little, Aloud’ comes in useful – I think it is a great resource and the pieces have been really well chosen. We also do training for anyone interested in facilitating groups and deliver bespoke courses for care home staff. There is more info on our website http://www.thereader.org.uk I have written to the manager at the home to give her more information, including contact details if she wants to know more.

    Do keep in touch and let us know how you get on. Let’s hope that your mother is able to continue her love of reading and sharing stories and poems with others – so powerful!


    • Thank-you Katie.
      What a surprise and a pleasure to see you here.
      Did you just follow the tag?
      I shall be reading poetry to my mother tomorrow, so I shall try to post an update later or Sunday. The connection on the boat is not very reliable!

    • The stuff on the Reader Organisation page makes for very exciting and moving reading.
      I hope the organisation goes from strength to strength, and I am thrilled it’s getting so much coverage. It demonstrates you don’t need lots of bells and whistles to achieve something that can make a huge and positive difference to people’s lives.

  7. I hope you succeed in convincing the director of your mother home to get someone to read aloud for residents/her, professionally or through a charity. After all nursing people is, also, minding their hearts and minds.

  8. Alas it is not looking promising Maria.
    The person from Age UK who went to assess her, found Mother in an contrary mood ( I know this because a family friend was visiting at the time). Then staff said she could join in with the activities there.
    Fair enough; but they don’t and won’t read to her, and that’s what I’m looking for, so in short, back to the drawing board.
    Very frustrating.

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