Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 22 Jun 2017

The joys of sharing books with older readers

As an ex teacher I always enjoy doing one of our ' Wild Things and Gold Rings' events with children in playgroups, nurseries and schools. My more recent job as a university lecturer means that I am happy talking about books with students and practitioners as well. But, much to my surprise, the most satisfying Letterpress Project experience so far has been sharing books with  much older readers.

I had always thought if I was ever living in a residential care home that I would want book related activities to be on offer on the menu of things to do, and that I would personally much prefer these to the more usual range that includes communal singing, craftwork and pottery. A little bit of research showed that this option was unlikely and a few tentative phone enquiries offering my services didn't  go anywhere , in fact the managers that I spoke to sounded rather puzzled as if an interest in books wasn't something that their residents would have. This was a surprise since I know that many elderly and disabled people enjoy being read to, especially if they are unable to do this for themselves. There has also been a lot of research done into the therapeutic benefits for people with dementia when listening to poetry. It seems obvious to me that this and listening to stories can help to revive and relive memories as well as giving many wonderful experiences of a wider world, particularly when ones own is shrinking. And surely there must be plenty of avid elderly readers who would love to talk about the books that they had read in the past as well as having the chance to discuss new ones.

Then a chance encounter with a fellow knitter on a train journey, who just happened to be the creative therapy co ordinator at St Richards Day Hospice in Worcester gave me the opportunity to try out the idea with some of her day patients. But what on earth could I do to make it a worthwhile experience? I have written about my enthusiasm for all things related to Alice before so we decided that this might be good subject to start with. I of course took a good selection of books along for people to look at but the objects that I also took with me made this a satisfying interactive session for everyone. As we passed various artefacts like dolls, mugs, and tea trays round the group I realised that this sensory experience made the subject even more real for those that didn't necessarily know the details of the story very well. It was also an opportunity for people to look and linger over the different illustrated versions because most had never seen any other than the Tenniel illustrations. That provided a chance to talk about which ones they liked and why which generated lots of animated discussion and some disagreements too.

I was invited back to talk to the group about Dickens books a couple of months later and although I don't have many related artefacts, I repeated the books plus other mix by including postcards, a bookmark and a Christmas Carol plate hastily borrowed from my mother. Central to the success of all sessions is looking at a variety of books on the subject and reading plenty of short extracts. Fortunately we have a good selection of Dickens that includes some beautifully illustrated versions of the more popular stories like A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist which were once again passed around and relished.

Roald Dahl was the next request from the hospice to tie in with a week of centenary celebrations. This was an interesting one to prepare because the author wrote for adults and children and of course had a very eventful life too. I was able to pass round several different editions of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, including the original illustrated by Faith Jaques before Quentin Blake became part of the Dahl brand. Because of the anniversary and the new BFG film I was able to buy some related memorabilia including an impressive glow in the dark night light which caused as much delight to some in this group as it might to a much younger people!

My next challenge was when I was invited to do a session with the separate mens group that met every week at a the hospice. I have written about this first slightly daunting experience elsewhere when I used the theme of Journeys to explore a wide rage of fiction and non fiction. It was generally well received and So I was pleased to be invited back to do something about comics. When I stumbled across a framed print of Desperate Dan in a charity shop the weekend before the event - I knew that I had my centrepiece for the event, although much too big to pass around. I think that this was probably the most enjoyable experience so far for me and the group although I nearly jeopardised its success with a quiz that was much too difficult at the beginning. In my enthusiasm for researching the history of comics I think that I had unreasonable expectations for them remembering details about characters and stories. I decided to be extremely generous with awarding team points nevertheless and the winning team beamed with pleasure when they received their Beano comic prizes.

Working with adults is as unpredictable as working with children but I think I like it because they  have such an fascinating wealth of life experience to contribute. Although I give the sessions a loose structure with plenty of relevant books and related artefacts to talk about and pass around for comment, I like being flexible and listening to individual memories of reading and links to personal experiences. Im also very keen to respond to what these audiences have requested so that they will hopefully come along with an interest in the subject.

I am back again next week to do a Peter Pan theme with the Day Hospice patients and a session with the theme of Adventures with the mens group and am really looking forward to doing both.


Karen Argent

June 2017