Reading as Therapy

So, I’ve finally got around to posting another entry; today, I would like to propose a theory, one that isn’t new, but one that I feel needs attention. This theory is, most simply put, that reading is a viable form of therapy. I have recently embarked upon a new project, giving up an hour of my time per week to visit and read to residents of Oak House, a care home for patients with dementia. My first visit was on Thursday this week, and I emerged from the care home after the hour with an overwhelming number of thoughts, queries and ideas. The environment wasn’t an entirely new one to me; during Sixth Form we would sing carols in a local care home around Christmas time and I used to help my Mum run Bingo sessions at another care home. However, the purpose of my visit was an altogether different one this time – reading poetry – a task very different from singing and games of bingo.

Upon entering the care home, one resident happily uttered ‘Hello!’ to me, but others were a lot less aware of my presence. However, I was led through to one of the main front rooms and over to a couple of ladies who, according to the nurse, really enjoyed poetry. I felt slightly uneasy trying to adjust to the surroundings, but soon managed to gather the poetry books from my bag and introduce myself. I started by giving the title of the first poem I would read to them, “If” by Rudyard Kipling. Immediately, one of the ladies exclaimed that she had heard of Kipling and that she liked this poem; after reading it, she happily gave her thoughts on the poem, mainly that ‘It is incredible how you can get so much out of a simple word like if’. For me, this provided the first sign that poetry could act as form of therapy to Dementia sufferers – I expected silence from my listeners, I expected no response after my readings. How wrong I was! Poem after poem, she responded with poignant expressions, such as “I have a feeling that the older I get, the more I really understand this poetry and the meaning behind it”, giving me ample opportunity for conversation with her about the poem’s themes, the poets and my study of English at University.

Choosing the poetry before attending the care home was no mean feat, as so many poems by famous poets explicitly talk of death, destruction and deprivation, themes I was conscious to stray from in my reading. This decision was a favourable one, as when I read poems by Frost, for example ‘Mending Wall’, a poem with more complex themes and language compared to Pam Ayres-type poetry, the residents remarked that they weren’t as keen on them. Therefore, I concluded from my visit that poetry as therapy at Oak House would only work if they could find some light relief in the poems, some humour, some colour and happiness. Poetry by the classics, Auden, Frost and Emerson, was only weaving a complex web very difficult to unweave in the residents’ minds.

The lady who first welcomed me with a ‘hello’ was eminently interested in my presence; she stood over my shoulder and constantly asked if she could hold the poetry book and look at the words. I finally offered to get her a seat, on which she sat and listened attentively. Now, this may seem normal until I mention that she has an extremely advanced form of Dementia which causes her to constantly want to be on her feet, moving around and interacting with others. The fact that she sat for half-an-hour to listen to my reading really was remarkable; she beamed at the end of each poem, and offered a ‘That was lovely’ or something similar. I truly feel that the poetry was a way of helping her mind to focus on something specific for a period of time instead of it constantly flitting to and fro as she moved around the Home. Her genuine happiness and interactions with my first, very responsive, listener was particularly heart warming, and was the perfect incentive to write this article on the theory of poetry as therapy.

The last fifteen minutes of my stay were just as memorable; a lady was brought into the room as she had expressed a desire to read me some poetry. I happily passed her the baton of books and she launched straight into a perfect reading of Kipling’s If” and “I Like to Bake” by Vivien Wade. Again, I saw this as a way of focusing her mind on the words and the pronunciation of them, of which can only be a positive task for her mind. Her gleeful laughter at the end of Wade’s stanzas brought a huge smile to my face, and the memory of it now motivates me for next week’s visit.

The University’s Care Home Reading Project has been set up by a member of staff from English who is keen to advocate the idea of poetry as therapy, and who will be building a module devoted to it very soon, a venture which I hope to participate in. Projects such as these should be set up more frequently across the country, as they provide a simple platform from which to serve your community through devoting attention and delivering a unique form of therapy to the most neglected members of our society.

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