Being read to by a parent or grandparent is an early memory for many of us. As we develop and grow, we are taught to read to ourselves, quietly. For a person living with dementia, being read to, and sharing the joy of a story, is an enriching activity that can reap many benefits. 

To celebrate World Book Day (March 5, 2020), I am focusing this blog on books and the significance that stories and poems hold for us all, especially people with dementia. 

Books play a significant role in childhood. I loved being able to read myself. I would often insist on being left alone as I ploughed my way through a book from beginning to end in anticipation of the conclusion, only then to feel hungry for the next story.

As an adult, I have less time to read stories. My approach to reading is more focused on research studies and policy papers. I do feel that I need to create space in my life to re-discover the thrill of fiction. 

An enormous pleasure in my life is reading to my grandchildren. At aged 2, they have their favourite books, and opt to have them read and re-read. Familiarity with the stories seems to bring huge delight and the use of rhythm and rhyme in children’s books helps to amplify the performance of storytelling. 

There is much for us to learn here, to enhance our interactions in adulthood and later life. Shared reading is something to be encouraged. I am always impressed when I hear of couples who read out loud to each other. This helps to finesse the skill of listening as well as reading. 

The Reading Agency runs a programme called Reading Friends linking volunteers with people with dementia and their carers to share conversations through reading. Reading Friends meet regularly to talk about stories in groups and on a one-to-one basis, in community settings, such as libraries and arts venues, and in care homes and supported living. 

‘Bibliotherapy’ is the term for this type of therapeutic activity, originating from the Greek word ‘biblion’ which translates as “small book”. Bibliotherapy is an expressive therapy that involves storytelling or the reading of specific texts, with the purpose of healing. It uses an individual’s relationship to the content of books and poetry and other written words as therapy. 

Bibliotherapy has been used in a ‘healing’ context for many centuries. Often combined with creative writing, its therapeutic benefits have been shown to be particularly effective in the treatment of depression and there is evidence that the results are long-lasting.

Bibliotherapist, Sharon Dunscombe founded The Literary Medicine Chest after she was inspired by her work with people with mental health issues. Sharon is passionate about the benefits of shared storytelling and its potential for prompting meaningful conversations and emotional expression. 

Books have relevance for the people who write them, as well as for their readers. In recent years, people living with dementia have become more vocal in sharing their experiences of living with dementia, so there have been books written which tell their personal stories. 

One such book, published last year, tells the story of Wendy Mitchell’s journey with dementia. Somebody I Used to Know is an honest and moving account of Wendy’s life before diagnosis, her reactions to learning that she had developed dementia, and her courageous onward journey. Wendy speaks openly about her condition, the deepness of her relationship with her daughters, and the changes that she is striving to make in the world. 

We can learn a great deal from the insights of people experiencing this condition, how they adapt and cope, make the most of their skills and talents, enjoy life in the ‘here-and-now’ and retain their powerful human spirit in the face of an uncertain future. 

Family carers too, have much to teach us. Over the years, many books have been published documenting the challenges and pain of caring for close relative living with dementia. 

Recently, I read Cassandra Farren’s book, I’ve lost My Mum, in which she describes her experiences and feelings during the years in which her mum has been changing with a progressive dementia. Cassandra lets the reader gain insight revealed by transcripts of emails between her and her father and sister. It is an open, raw account which will have resonance for many family carers.

If you a favourite books that mean a lot to you and evokes special memories, please let me know barbara@livebetterwith.org I am keen to get some feedback from readers to help inform future articles on this topic.