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Igniting the Spark

Written by Katie Clark, 6th July 2010

In a quiet corner, a small group gathers. They joke and laugh together as cups of tea are handed out and pieces of paper are passed round. Then everything stops as one voice reads aloud, a poem by William Wordsworth, ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud / That floats on high o’er vales and hills…’ Other voices join in, some looking down at the paper, others reciting these words from memory, the familiar lines learned in school days bringing smiles to faces. One lady just looks up and beams. At the end she says, ‘I lived there, where that man wrote that poem. We knew his house, it was so beautiful and there were daffodils, thousands of them!’

This group is taking place at a care home for people living with dementia. Each year, 100,000 people in the UK develop dementia. Most of us know someone whose life has been touched by it in some way, but there is still so much we do not know about dementia, and to this point, no known cure. This week marks Dementia Awareness Week, with the Alzheimer’s Society launching their ‘Remember the Person’ campaign, encouraging people to think about those they know living with dementia and about simple things they can do to make life for them more manageable and enjoyable.

The Reader Organisation has been delivering Get Into Reading with people living with dementia since October 2007. At first we were not sure how successful this group would be – whether people would respond to the reading and enjoy taking part. We thought we may need to alter our model and adapt it to suit residents who had developed dysphasia or hearing and eyesight problems. In fact, the model has proved incredibly powerful, the only change from other groups being that we use poetry, rather than prose. We find that poetry receives a much better response, the rhyme and rhythm holding concentration and enabling people to get a real feel for the language. Some people even join in with poems they don’t know, guessing the rhyming words themselves. Often at the end of a session reading group members go back and re-read one line over again. Each line of poetry is so full of meaning, and people can single out one line or phrase and tease it out, talking about why they like it or feel drawn to it. The reading group has given the pleasure of reading back to people who were once keen readers but have recently found it difficult to manage.

For those living in care, Get Into Reading offers a space where no one is rushed, we listen to one another with the poem as our shared focus and as a result a community is built up around the poem. There is real communication. Staff members are able to engage with the people they care for in a different way, people living side by side can learn something of the lives of their neighbours and learn to see them as a whole person, not just in their current situation. There is discussion, laughter, surprise and serious thought as we ponder the lines and individual words of poems and dig for the meaning behind them. And the experience lasts beyond the group sessions themselves. One lady told me recently,

sat in front of that television all day you do get bored. I love the poems. When I’m on my own in the evening I read them through again and I spot a line that picks me up and gives me the lift I needed.

The community aspect of the group is vital. When asked to describe the group, one resident said,

It’s a little group where we all come together. We look at things together and it doesn’t matter, if you want to come along you can and you will be welcomed by the people there and you can join in.

It strikes me as I read this that the word ‘together’ is key. This is not an isolated experience, the idea of ‘joining in’ and being welcomed by others is crucial. But sometimes it can be hard to forge those links that make communication happen. I have watched many people sitting side by side in the lounge, not engaging with one another. Loud televisions make this even more difficult. There are times when someone is having a bad day and just wants to shun any human contact, retreating into their own world. But even in these situations the poems have opened doors and even transformed moods.

During one session I read ‘Sea Fever’ by John Masefield: ‘I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and sky’. One very quiet gentleman picked up the poem and immediately began reading it confidently aloud. It was the first time I had heard him speak. I asked if he had seen the poem before. ‘I’ve not seen it. But I’ve read it before,’ he told me. He read well and when we began talking about it told us,

It’s about old sailors, in other words me! I was one. It was very good. I had a good one [ship] and I liked the job, the people. It wasn’t hard work physically but it was repetitive, doing the same thing a lot. We went to lots of places but I can’t remember the names now.

He got talking and told us that his father worked on the markets all his life, which reminded a lady in the group of her own father who also worked on the markets. They engaged in a lively discussion about the work and the people they both knew. In the midst of the excited talk going on about these families, another lady in the group turned to me and, pointing to the other two, said,

People say they can’t see anything, but they do, you see, they can talk about it and it is the old talk.

At The Reader Organisation we would like to see Get Into Reading groups taking place in care homes across the country. We are delivering Read to Lead training for staff working in care homes so that the model can grow sustainable roots in the ground where it is most needed. It has been a joy to see people getting excited about using Get Into Reading with the people they work with and care for on a daily basis. When asked why he had come on the training, one care worker replied:

There are a lot of people living here with a lot to offer, but we need to put them in a position to get that out of them, to ignite that spark. I think the poetry can do that and I’m here to learn how to use it.

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