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Sally’s Reader Story – “It was as if the poetry unlocked a part of her that dementia was keeping hidden away”

Written by Lily Kehoe, 15th May 2023

This Dementia Action Week, Sally, an Occupational Therapy Assistant tells us how Shared Reading has benefited patients she works with who are living with dementia.

If you’re interested in supporting people with dementia through Shared Reading, we have volunteer opportunities at present in Somerset and Wigan, and future opportunities coming up in the North West. Please register your interest and we will be in touch with more information.

I’ve been working as an Occupational Therapy Assistant on a specialist dementia ward for just over a year now. During this time, I’ve had the great privilege and pleasure of helping to facilitate Shared Reading groups. My role, and working in a clinical health setting, is still relatively new to me, and this past year has been a challenging but rewarding journey of learning and discovery.

One of the biggest revelations for me, has been discovering the power of Shared Reading. I’ve seen first hand the immeasurable value and benefits that these sessions have, not only for our patients, but for the staff too (myself included!). I certainly have experienced the healing and restorative power of Shared Reading, as it opened my eyes to new ways of looking at the world, helping me get through very tough times along the way.

When they are on the ward, patients with dementia can often seem frightened, agitated, tearful, confused and at times, aggressive. We can see changes in behaviour for patients who regularly attend Shared Reading sessions - they become more relaxed and settled and completely immerse themselves in the sessions.

For one patient, it was as if the poetry unlocked a part of her that the dementia was keeping hidden away, that was causing her so much frustration and fear the rest of the time. You could actually see the relief on her face as this ‘unlocking’ occurred. As we shared poems together, she responded emotionally - whether it was joy, sadness, or excitement, and although she sometimes struggled with finding the right words and short-term memory loss, she found ways to overcome this. For example, when she couldn’t think of the words to say, she’d beam a big smile, or gesticulate, or find alternative words with a similar meaning – in much the same way as when we try to speak a foreign language but can’t remember the exact word for something. We were able to understand and communicate together in this way. It was a magical human connection and broke down barriers in those special moments in time.

For another patient, whilst he struggled to express and articulate his thoughts and feelings verbally, his body language and facial expressions conveyed positive emotional responses to the poems. On occasion, he would rest his head on his arms and close his eyes and would simply say “yes” and “lovely” as he listened, before drifting off to sleep.

These are just a couple of examples of patients who I’ve seen benefit from the power of poetry and Shared Reading during my time at the hospital, and there are so many others I can think of!

Shared Reading is so important for people living with dementia. I’ve seen patients find another language when expressing their thoughts, feelings and needs, which is frequently prompted by listening to poems. In addition to this, there’s the positive emotional and physical experience of connecting with others within the group setting. It offers individuals a safe space, where they have the time to find themselves again, when they may otherwise feel lost, trapped, and even robbed by their cognitive impairments. It also reduces distress, anxiety, confusion, aggression, and other associated feelings and behaviours for both the individual and the caregiver - it really is powerful stuff!

Shared Reading is the highlight of my working week. It’s such a delight to observe patients’ responses and engagement each week in these invaluable sessions, and to follow their progress and improvement until they can leave hospital.

The Reader Leader, armed with their selection of poems, has the power to transport us all to another time and place. But, importantly, Shared Reading is not merely a distraction as it gives patients the chance to really feel something; to think, to breathe, to live, and to connect with others….the poetry somehow brings life back to life.

We're also running Shared Reading Introduction sessions to give a practical taste of Shared Reading and answer any questions you may have. You can sign up here.

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