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Reading and dementia

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research, symptom reduction

Recently I saw an item on the news which reported on the therapeutic value of table tennis. Indulging in regular bouts of the game, according to new research, can lessen the symptoms of dementia and, potentially, even ward off its onset. The television broadcast featured two men, both with Alzheimer’s disease, absorbed in one long, mesmerizingly rhythmic rally that looked as though it had been going on for hours and would continue in perpetuity. (Indeed after the feature had finished, I envisaged the two men, somewhere in a leisure centre in the north of England, still returning the ball to each other, unshakeably engrossed in their eternal back-and-forth.)

The curative effects of whiff-whaff derive, the report suggested, from the physical and cognitive demands of the game. Prolonged ping-ponging may bring about (positive) changes in the brain: to wit, the enlarging of the hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped structure which plays an important role in memory function. The hippocampus is believed to shrink in people with Alzheimer’s, and hence playing ping-pong, so the theory goes, can bolster the brain, thereby countering the effects of certain strains of dementia.

This is exciting news. But where does it leave those of us with little appetite for racket sports or without ready access to a table tennis table? Fortunately, there appear to be other means of hippocampal stimulation. As I mentioned in my last blog, reading poems and stories, especially when they are read aloud and experienced with other people, has been shown to improve psychological and social wellbeing.

A charitable social enterprise based at the University of Liverpool, The Reader Organisation, has pioneered an innovative model of reading for wellbeing, known as the Get into Reading (GIR) format. The format is brilliantly simple. It involves the reading aloud of great literature to audiences in a diverse range of settings such as hospitals, community centres, care homes, corporate boardrooms and supermarkets (yes, regarding that last item in the list, you read me right). The readings are conducted by a facilitator, after which the audience, if they so wish, offer their responses to the texts. Often the discussions are personal reminiscences triggered by a particular text. And herein lies one of the key values of the format: taking part in shared reading has the potential to unearth memories which might otherwise remain submerged in the mind.

The GIR format has proved particularly popular in care homes and day centres, and recently The Reader Organisation has sought to evaluate the therapeutic benefit of shared reading in such settings. After weeks of taking part in group-reading activities, a number of participants with dementia reported positive experiences, describing, for example, how being exposed to literary language helped them to ease their minds and relax, as well as provoking concentration and stimulating new acts of thought. Similar effects were noted by staff members who described how, for group members regularly engaged in shared reading activities, the presentation of dementia symptoms was noticeably less pronounced.

Of all the variety of literary texts (short stories, poems and plays) read aloud in the groups, poetry appeared to work the best. The rhythmic cadences and transporting quality of verse were particularly appealing to group members, a number of whom spoke affectionately about the poems they had learnt and loved in their childhoods. One participant, Dan, a man who often reportedly struggled to connect with other people, was especially moved and animated by war poetry, which acted, as it were, as a kind of verbal spur, enabling him to discuss and share with others his own military experiences. After listening to a reading of Tennyson’s poem ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ (with its deliciously insistent, mind-etching rhythms: ‘Canon to right of them, / Canon to left of them’) and after providing fellow group members with a detailed account of the history of the Battle of Balaclava, Dan triumphantly remarked, ‘It’s still there.’

The poet WH Auden famously observed that 'poetry makes nothing happen'. Yet Dan’s (and many other people’s) experiences of poetry give the lie to such a dispiriting dictum. Granted, poetry might not be the universal panacea to all the world’s social and political ills, but it does make small, though by no means insignificant, differences to people's lives, helping them, in the context of dementia care, to reconnect with memories and enabling them in the process to articulate a sense of self.

For readers interested in learning more about shared reading as a therapeutic intervention, I recommend the original Reader Organisation report which can be accessed here.

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