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The power of reading aloud

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Over the past 8 months I have had the opportunity to take part in the University of Nottingham’s Reading Aloud scheme. I was based at the Queen’s Medical Centre, reading poetry to those on several wards who are living with dementia. The overall experience was wonderfully rewarding as I received many positive reactions to poems that I read. I often found people mouthing along with certain lines in time with me or wistfully repeating them after I had finished reading, particularly with well-known poems from the likes of Wordsworth and Blake. Even when the poems were not recognised by the listeners, there was generally a positive effect, such as triggering a memory to do with the subject of the poem or prompting them to relax and fall asleep.

Many of the people I had the chance to read to in the hospital were comforted by the poems as they had learned them at school. This meant hearing them again brought back happy memories and there were often positive stories attached to the poems, which people would relay to me. For example, one lady I read with could tell me the name of the teacher who had taught her specific poems and at what age she had learnt them. It was extremely rewarding to know that my reading could cause old memories to resurface and help alleviate loneliness and boredom that the patients may have been experiencing.

One of my most memorable sessions from the experience came when I coincidentally read one-to-one with an ex-poet on the ward. Unsurprisingly when I offered to read some poems to her, the lady became quite excited and was interested to know what I would be reading. When I began to read, I found that she could talk along with parts of almost all the poems I read to her, reciting famous lines from Davies’ ‘Leisure’ and the entirety of Edgar’s ‘The Lion and Albert’. I was later told by the nurses working on that ward that prior to the reading she had been fixated on her illness and hospital surroundings. They were amazed at how the poetry had distracted her from feeling ill. This was delightful to hear and made me realise the possible impact this scheme could have on people living with dementia.

Another standout example of this came in the final week of the Autumn term leading up to the Christmas break. We conducted a group reading session on the ward, using poems centred around the Christmas theme. Overall, the group of people were appreciative of the poems and they prompted much laughter and discussions of certain Christmas traditions. However, one lady had remained silent for the entire session and did not engage with discussions or seem to react to the poems in any way. This was until we decided to sing ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ as a group. The lady looked up as soon as we began to sing, and she suddenly joined in with every lyric. She looked overjoyed throughout the song and remained calm and happy for the remainder of the session. The lady’s transformation stuck with me and will remain one of my favourite memories from the experience for a long time to come.

Meghan Jarvis

For more information about the School of English's dementia reading scheme, please visit: https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/english/public-engagement/shared-reading-groups.aspx#DementiaGroup


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