Reading Aloud to the Elderly by Beth Stilborn

“I wish I could remember the moment of learning to read,” says writer Beth Stilborn, “the moment when those lines and marks on the paper became words filled with meaning, words that made stories. From that moment, even though it’s lost to my memory, I became a voracious reader. My middle name should have been ‘Just One More Chapter.’”

Stilborn loves reading aloud, sharing her passion for words and stories with young and old alike. In the following post reprinted by permission from her blog, By Word of Beth, she discusses reading aloud as an enjoyable activity for elders, especially those who have difficulty reading for themselves. I know elders who also love reading aloud to their visitors, too, especially young ones.   — MAB

Reading aloud to the elderly? Yes, that’s right. Reading aloud is not just for children. Many elderly people are no longer able to read for themselves, either because their sight isn’t good enough, they aren’t strong enough to hold a book, they have a tremor which makes the printed page dance in front of their eyes in an unreadable manner, their cognitive abilities no longer allow them to process the written word, just to name a few reasons that come readily to mind (because of personal experience). For people who have loved reading all their lives, it would mean so much for someone to take the time, even once a week, to spend a while reading aloud to them.

I have mentioned before in this blog how I used to read poetry aloud to my mother over the phone. Hearing the familiar words and cadences of long-loved favorites, and some of the new poems I shared with her from Julie Andrews’ Collection of Poems, Songs, and Lullabies as well as from our other much-loved and much-read poetry anthologies, helped Mum so much when she was anxious. I occasionally took picture books that had particularly spoken to me, to show Mum. She found them hard to manage on her own, and would ask me to read them to her. And so I read to her books such as Simeon’s Gift, and The Very Fairy Princess. My musician and teacher mother appreciated those books greatly. Mum amazed the staff at her various nursing homes, as well as our doctor, with the number of books she read. She was always challenging her mind, learning new things. About a month and a half before she died, she had a fall and broke a bone in her shoulder. Although she tried, it became too hard for her to hold a book — and her reading was one of the hardest things for her to give up. Again, poetry was able to soothe her and comfort her like nothing else.

After my Dad died, the staff at his nursing home sent me a card that they had all signed. One of the night staff included by her name, “I used to read to him on those many nights when he couldn’t sleep.” That was the first I had known of this — that someone had taken the time and had cared enough to sit and read to my Dad in the long hours of the night. Dad had Sundowner’s Dementia, which, as the name suggests, becomes much more of a problem in the evening and night, and there were many nights when he refused to go to bed, or couldn’t or wouldn’t go to sleep. It means so much to me to know that at least sometimes, someone was reading to him.

What one reads to an elderly person is very much dependent on their personal interests and tastes, and one also needs to take into account the possibility of cognitive impairment, such as with various dementias, but such impairment doesn’t preclude reading aloud, it just might mean reading for a short time, or reading the same thing over and over again. (Dad often repeated certain actions again and again, and I can imagine him wanting something read again and again.) One needs to also remember that hearing is often impaired in older people, and so one must ensure that the person can hear what is being read (while at the same time, not disturbing a nursing home roommate — sometimes a tricky endeavor).

In reading to the elderly, read-aloud doesn’t have to mean just books, either. An older friend that I used to visit in a nursing home,  who contracted West Nile Neurological Syndrome, finds it difficult to hold things to read them, and so she would sometimes ask me to read letters to her. This can be a true service to people who can’t manage envelopes, or easily decipher handwriting.

On my old blog, elizabethannewrites, I ran a series about “The Fine Art of Reading Aloud”. You can access [selected posts] at the links below. I hope it will help you understand and internalize the fact that reading aloud can be done from cradle to grave and all the times in between. Perhaps you’ll think of one of the books I’ve mentioned in this series the next time you hear the words “Read me a story”…

Thanks for reading,

Beth Stilborn

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