After 20 years as a university English Literature teachers I gave it up for several reasons… stress, motherhood, frustration at the politics, the lessening focus on teaching, and because we live in a remote part of rural Cumbria.
I love words. I write, I read and teach creative writing workshops. I also have three kids under the age of 16 so don’t have an awful lot of spare time but a friend, Kate, was setting up the Kirkby Stephen Community Arts and I got involved as a volunteer. We bring professional theatre, films, workshops, reading and talks to the local community and the first year has been a huge success. I knew about The Reader and was really interested in volunteering but there weren’t many opportunities in Cumbria. I was Kate who told me about the Christmas Challenge funded programme to create Shared Reading groups for older people. I thought about the three care homes in my town, my own parents have passed away so my family has little contact with older people. I recognised that I didn’t have much experience working with older people, but it sounded like such an interesting opportunity and I felt like I wanted to do it.
“I hoped the course could help me gain the skills I’d need for this new environment and to stimulate me to think differently. I wasn’t disappointed. The three day course was really well run – every session was relevant and informative, I love it. The tutors were excellent and brought out the best in everyone. It was really good to try out the skills they taught us in the sessions – nerve-wracking ar times, but so useful. We watched a video of a Shared Reading group in a care home – that was invaluable. I learned a lot from the other people on the course too.”
I was struck by how well-run and friendly The Reader is as an organisation – every contact I’ve had has been met by someone cheerful, efficient and enthusiastic and the lovely little touches, the way everyone mentions what they’re reading in their email signatures for example.
Since the course I started going into a local care home the very next week and in the very first session an elderly lady called out to me “Are you posh?” in an interrogating tone. Later she asked me if I was I was a preacher, she said “I’d like to have been a preacher.” They sound like arbitrary comments but they revealed a lot for me, this lady saw something in me – the way I dressed or things I carried – which signaled ‘posh’ to her and I sensed the hostility or fear in her question, it’s really useful to recognise that. I go every Thursday afternoon now and read with about six residents. They often look as if they’re asleep, they don’t engage much but it’s extraordinarily rewarding. The other day I started reading a poem aloud and one lady, who has not spoken in four weeks, joined in and read aloud with me. I think in future I’d like to work with the other two care homes in my town. I’d also like to set up another group, perhaps teenagers mixed with older participants in their 70s or 80s.