Chicken soup for the ears is a phrase I’ve been using as a starting point for considering how it might be possible to apply the concept of comfort food into a wordy counterpart. And I don’t mean alphabet spaghetti.
For a while I have been running ‘words for wellbeing’ or bibliotherapy workshops for people living with dementia and carers, but as time goes by, I still find myself explaining, exploring and defining what this might mean. There is certainly an emerging field which advocates words as a powerful therapy, whether this involves reading or writing, or both. The Reading Agency and The Reader are two organisations spreading the idea that words can help and heal. While The Reader champions shared reading groups, The Reading Agency promotes Books on Prescription to helpfully point both individuals and groups in the direction of words that are tried-and-tested for offering information or advice around a particular area. This is all for the good, and I’m a huge fan of any organisation or programme that seeks to (ahem) spread the written word.
This said, something I haven’t yet come across is an organisation or programme that encourages people to think about, and then to gather the words already in their life that have the power to comfort, nourish and sustain. And here’s where the concept of comfort words comes in. While we may not immediately be able to think of the words that comfort us, we may easily be able to consider the food that comforts us. It might be chicken soup, a roast with all the trimmings, or hot buttered toast with a cup of tea. For others an ice cream, smashed avocado on toast or seasonal veg fresh from the allotment might really hit the spot.
Whatever our comfort food, it will certainly be unique to us, and possibly very specific indeed. It’s the same with words. Any collection of words that can comfort, nourish or sustain us will matter to us because of the personal significance they hold. And while this may be a poem not written for us (but may truly feel that it has been written for us), there will also be words that have been written just for us. Postcards from friends, an email of thanks from a colleague, or even a post-it love note written in haste and left on the kitchen table.
Memory boxes or memory books are often put together either by or with people living with dementia, in a bid to capture what matters most, and increasingly to jog a person’s memory as their dementia progresses. Much along the lines of Playlist for Life, which seeks to create individual musical playlists, I wonder what it might look like – whether or not we are living with dementia – to create a Word List or Reading List for Life, of all the words that bring comfort to us. Prayers, poems, recipes, ticket stubs and birthday cards may all feature, holding the power to spark a memory, raise a smile or even bring us to tears. But whatever memory or emotional response they might bring, each item or collection of words would honour our individual life story in all its richness.
Come along to the ‘Words for Wellbeing’ workshop at the Unforgettable Showcase on 20 September to start exploring what your comfort words are. All welcome, reading and writing optional.
Charlotte Overton-Hart runs Story Chaplain, a social enterprise made up of a collection of creative arts projects for people living with dementia, carers, and everyone.