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Jessica Fenlon reading to a resident at Oak House residential home

Memories triggered by students reading to older people

Students from the University of Exeter’s English department are reading to older people in residential care homes, as part of a project that uses literature and poetry as a stimulus for senior citizens, including those with dementia and Alzheimer’s.

The Care Homes Reading Project is in its second year of operation. This year eight care homes and 160 student volunteers have signed up to participate in a programme which uses reading aloud as a basis for creating intergenerational relationships. Strengthening links between young people and the ageing population in the community is key to developing a more caring society, according to University of Exeter English academic, Dr Johanna Harris, who initiated the project. 

She said: “It seems more important than ever to build links between younger and older generations, given the ageing population is a sector that is increasingly in need of greater community support. Each group tends to be surrounded by people their own age, which can lead to a slightly distorted perspective on life. Immersed in student life, it’s easy to forget about ‘hidden’ vulnerable older people who exist in every community and for the elderly to characterise young people as selfish, noisy and disruptive.”

Students read poetry, plays and short stories to residents, in groups or individually for one or two hours a week during term time. For the elderly, including some who rarely receive visitors or are without family close by, it is an opportunity to have regular contact. 

Oak House, a specialist care home, primarily caring for older people with dementia, recognises the importance of using poetry to improve the social life of its residents. They were keen to be involved in the reading project to extend their current activities which draw on the therapeutic benefits of poetry and reading.

Dianne Smyth, Manager of Oak House said: “The recognition of various well known poems and readings has helped to bring back long term memories of the past. It has created a stimulus and a sense of wellbeing and familiarity. It is easy to forget, that when this older generation were at school, poetry was a significant part of the English curriculum and they were required to recite and learn poems off by heart. The relevance of this is that, we are reengaging with long term memories and that’s important especially for those who have dementia.”

Poets like Wordsworth, Kipling and Keats were frequently requested, according to 3rd year English student, Cameron Milne.  He said: “Anything by the Romantic poets or [that] reminded them of their childhood, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, was popular. Usually they were poems that they could reminisce about. T.S Eliot’s ‘Cats’ went down an absolute treat and Macavity the mystery cat had them all in stitches. Even people who are hard of hearing may not have understood all that you were saying but they can still appreciate the rhythms of verse. One resident was from Ireland and she really enjoyed Heaney and Yeats.”

Staff at The Lodge Care Home, were delighted that some residents enjoyed participating and could read with such vigour and felt that it brought out the actor in some. Having their memories triggered also helped to create a more social atmosphere within the Home generally.

Jessica Fenlon, a 2nd year English student was keen to volunteer for the Reading Project as she was accustomed to visiting her grandma in a dementia care home and therefore had experience of dealing with people with this condition. At Oak House Jessica made a connection with a resident called Joan, who was knowledgeable about literature and enjoyed choosing books to read independently. She had not been in the home long and had some awareness of her condition, but was quick to explain that she had always wanted to study English but due to family circumstance had been forced to leave education and get a job. 

Jessica said: “Residents can often feel isolated and excluded, making an already difficult experience of losing their independence seem much more drastic and difficult to adjust to. I was glad that we could provide some comfort, and a creative distraction for Joan whilst she was going through this stage in her life.”

The overwhelming interest in the reading project from students at the University of Exeter was intense, as over 100 students signed up to the voluntary project within the space of four days when it first launched in October 2011. Full training, including CRB checks, presentations from Care Home managers and activities co-ordinators on what to expect and workshops involving reading techniques, has been essential to the project’s success. The University’s Community Action group also delivered training which addressed values, attitudes and safety issues to ensure a quality experience for the volunteer and the resident.

Although Care Homes often have a range of creative activities, carers are often too busy to dedicate the time to read to residents and may not have the confidence to choose appropriate literature. The role of the volunteers from the project filled this gap and served to raise students’ awareness of the society around them.

Vanessa Langley, Activities Co-ordinator at Woodhayes Brendoncare, whose company ethos is to encourage independent thought through recreational activity, said: “The students have brought a raft of fresh air, a breeze of youthful vibrancy and enthusiasm, which in some cases has led to friendship. Sometimes the books weren’t opened as residents just wanted to chat. They have enriched the loves of those living in Care Homes like ours.”

This project was funded by the University’s Annual Fund, which seeks philanthropic support from its alumni and friends in order to enhance the student experience at Exeter. It raises unrestricted funds to support a wide variety of projects across the University which would not otherwise receive funding, allowing the University to respond to areas of greatest need and make an immediate difference to the lives of current students.

View this story on the BBC website.

Date: 7 November 2012

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