The Reader Organisation has been running a Get Into Reading group at Rubens House, a Jewish Care home in north London, since the summer. The group meets weekly to share and enjoy reading. It goes from strength to strength. We have nine regular attendees, a mix of men and women, all in their eighties and nineties, many of them quite severely disabled. While a few are in the early stages of dementia, most are able and keen to enter into deep debate about the texts we share.
We are lucky that the manager and all the staff at the home are extremely supportive of the group. There is always staff representation at the sessions, and a care worker is currently training to be a facilitator, and will co-facilitate with me from the New Year. From that time there will be two Get Into Reading groups at the home, the existing one, and another for residents with more advanced dementia. Volunteers are currently being recruited for this.
Staff tell us the group has had a very positive effect on members. They talk about it all week, apparently, and about the texts we have shared. One, whose dementia we thought precluded much understanding, has started reciting poems with great enjoyment between our sessions. Even the music events the home arrange do not have the same impact. ‘Mondays have taken on a completely new aspect. I’ve got something to look forward to now, for the first time in years’, one member said to me recently.
Every story and poem has created an enormous degree of interest and discussion, both on an intellectual level, and in terms of personal responses. This is a very empathetic group. Even those few members who do not speak very much show by their body language that they are feeling the stories and poems. ‘The Loudest Voice’ by Grace Paley inspired fascinating conversations this week. The story is about a Jewish girl who is asked to take a leading part in her school’s nativity play, and the reactions of her parents and neighbours. Group members all related to this situation. Some spoke of their enjoyment of Christmas carols at school, something never mentioned to their parents. They were unanimous in their approval of the religious tolerance of the father in the story.
In fact this is a tolerant group in lots of ways. I very much admire members’ forbearance and respect for each other. There are always plenty of people volunteering to read, and some are astonishingly good readers, while others have great difficulty reading a few sentences. Sometimes words are barely audible, sometimes whole paragraphs get muddled up, or missed out, or repeated. No one shows any impatience. Nor do they when members constantly lose their place as they try to follow the text, or say the same thing over and over. We have visitors to the group almost every week. Members have taken these constant changes very courteously in their stride.
On a number of occasions we have all struggled initially to grasp the meaning of a text, especially with the poems, but this is a group with an impressive amount of perseverance, and between us we have worked it out. Blank looks and even expressions of dislike on a first reading change to nods, smiles, excited talk, and a justified sense of pride.
We recently shared the opening chapter of My Left Foot by Christy Brown, to see if it would be suitable as a first book to share. Everyone loved it. There is never any shortage of discussion with this group, but on this occasion the level of engagement was amazing. We’re all waiting with bated breath for the books to arrive. I know we will get lots of pleasure and interest, and indeed quite a lot of sorrow from the book. I hope to arrange a showing of the film for when we get to the end.
I feel very privileged to work with this group. The members are truly inspiring. Some of them say they love the group because it keeps them learning. It keeps me learning too, all the time. I have learnt to break up texts more often than I have in the past, because memory and comprehension levels are big issues in a group where everyone is very old. I have learnt more about ways to help generate understanding. And I have learnt a lot about some remarkable people.