(This article was first published on the Letterpress Project website)
Most people seem to enjoy listening to a well told story so why should it be any different for the elderly residents at Perrin’s House Residential and Nursing Care Home in Malvern? Having talked all this over with the activities staff some time ago and armed with the necessary DBS clearance as a volunteer, I set off enthusiastically for my first story reading sessions.
As I was about to meet residents for the first time I had pre- selected half a dozen stories of varying length from ‘To Read Aloud: A Literary Toolkit for Wellbeing’’ by Francesco Dimitri. It is quite difficult to make appropriate choices without knowing anything about the tastes or background of adult readers and I worried that they might not like any of them, despite the variety. For instance, my husband can’t bear anything by Jane Austen and added to my concerns when he suggested that individuals might be completely put off if I read something that they actively disliked!
But I had to start somewhere and I would hopefully get a sense of whether they would prefer something different on my next visit. I was given a very warm welcome by the staff and taken to meet the first of nine residents who had been selected because they might benefit from the activity. I have changed all of the names but here follows a brief account of the interesting two hours that I spent there and some of the people that I met.
I am familiar with the environment of a Nursing Care Home as my dad spent some time living in one before he died as a result of having Alzheimer’s a couple of years ago. Knowing about how to communicate with people who have any form of dementia proved to be helpful as some of the residents are rather disorientated. Going into someone’s room is very intimate so I was glad to be introduced to each of them by the member of staff before I settled down to read them a story. I spent some time with Ivy who appeared to be sound asleep and pretty motionless as I read ‘The Hills is Lonely’ by Lillian Beckwith. This is a six minute piece about the experience of enjoying home- made butter, plenty of mushrooms and huge dumplings and the helpful summary suggests that ‘The simplest food can be intensely pleasurable. And you don’t need to travel all the way to the Mediterranean to find it’. It is short and sweet and made me feel quite hungry as I tried to read with as much expression as possible. Ivy apparently does not speak even when she is more wakeful but I think that she was listening – who knows?
Next I met Kate who I was told really likes any company and she smiled broadly when I sat down beside her. Once again, she uses little spoken language but answered ‘yes’ very quietly when I asked her if she liked books. I read the same Beckwith piece and then a 4 minute extract from ‘Rebecca’ by Daphne Du Maurier. I left her smiling which I suppose is a measure of success and promised to return again soon.
Moving along the corridor I read the tried and tested Beckwith piece again to three more elderly ladies, I hope with increasing panache. The first was Vera, who was usually very vocal and loud but after a couple of minutes listening to me read, she seemed to go into a sort of trance and listened closely. She eventually fell asleep, so that I felt that I had at least given her a calming experience. Next was Elizabeth who hardly stirred at all as she lay in her bed beside me -perhaps she was deeply asleep but maybe she did enjoy hearing my voice in the distant background. Sarah wanted to talk with me about her husband for some time but then listened attentively to the Beckwith piece before dozing off contentedly.
Down to another floor and rooms off another corridor where I met Louise, a much more talkative lady who told me that she liked Jane Austen, so I read an extract from ‘Pride and Prejudice’ which she liked. I finished by chatting with Moira who had several books on the table beside her bed and told me that she liked reading anything and everything. She declined my selection of stories and asked if I would read a chapter from her current novel which made a nice change.
I should let you know that this was all very experimental as I was the first volunteer who had ever offered to do one to one reading with residents. I am very pleased to say that all seemed to respond positively to listening to a short story being read aloud. On reflection, I don’t think that it mattered what I read in terms of content but I think that they all derived some pleasure from listening to language being spoken in a way that they may not be used to hearing very often. All have televisions in their rooms but that is a very different experience, even if they are able to follow the complex plots of dramas. Other than that I would guess that a lot of the conversations that they have with staff and visitors might be about more everyday functional concerns. Listening to fictional stories read aloud perhaps gives them a glimpse into more unusual, often beautiful vocabulary and structure which seems to be very soothing. I suppose that it might also remind them of happy memories or act as an escape from the hum drum into a world of imagination. I certainly seem to be able to send people to sleep pretty effectively, but as long as they seem to enjoy the experience, I will certainly do this kind of story reading again.