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Reading aloud - the power of poetry

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approaches to dementia care, arts and theatre, communication, symptom reduction

This year I had the opportunity to take part in the Reading Aloud scheme at the University of Nottingham (for details, please see: https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/english/public-engagement/shared-reading-groups.aspx#DementiaGroup), which involved reading to people with dementia at the Queens Medical Centre. Over the weeks I met many interesting people and found that the poems I read to them were often warmly welcomed not just because it was a new activity, but because the poems evoked memories of hearing and learning them in their childhood. Wordsworth's ‘I wondered lonely as a cloud’ was recognised at the first line or by the famous daffodils, and many people recited this poem along with me.

Funny poems were always popular, and everyone was amused to hear of the impossible (and often relatable!) relative in ‘Tea with Aunty Mabel’ (http://www.ourdailyread.com/2014/10/tony-mittons-top-10-poems-to-remember-and-recite/) and of Albert’s escapades in ‘The Lion and Albert’ (https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-lion-and-albert/).

As I introduced this latter poem on one occasion, one of the men present was able to recite all 18 verses word for word, and then mentioned other poems by Marriott Edgar which I brought along on other occasions. It was also interesting to find how the poems held significance to different people for many different reasons. One woman I met even used to write comic poetry herself, and many people had favourites because they were written by poets from their home town. Seeing the laughter and interaction sparked by poetry was a real joy of the experience.

There was one reading session that had a particular impact on me because of the effect the poetry had on the woman I was reading to. She was one of the more ill people I read to, and when I arrived at the ward she was quite confused and distressed. However, when me and one of the nurses went to sit with her, her attention turned to the poetry and offered a new focus. The light-hearted poems I read seemed to sooth her almost instantly, which I think was helped by the regular rhythm of the verses. When I then started reading a nursery rhyme, she joined in and could say it with me. I stuck with the nursery rhyme theme, which reminded her of her youth. These particular verses appeared to much lift her mood: she was a lot more relaxed and told me about her life and her job - even showing me a picture of herself taken some years ago. Within an hour’s time, she was more comfortable, aware, and happily talking with us, which was a lovely thing to witness. This particular moment stuck with me because the poetry had obviously had a profound effect and had reminded her of experiences which she could then share with us. It was evidence of the power of words and in particular poetry, and really demonstrated the positive effect that reading aloud can have.

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My mother doesn't have a diagnosis of dementia but she is 91 and lives in a care home. She is most definitely frail. We occasionally share poetry. Yesterday she quoted from Robert Browning's How they brought the good news from Ghent to Aix, so we looked it up on my smartphone and I read it to her. Neither of us could remember what the "good news" was - which is just as well because apparently it was never specified in the poem. Anyway, what I like is how the reading creates a space that we can both share on an equal basis. It gets away from the uneveness of conversations about things that she can scarcely remember.

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