This series of booklets focuses on reading aloud with children, but reading aloud is so good, we should read aloud with everyone. Another group that can benefit from social reading aloud sessions are seniors. I was born in 1952; so, I probably count as a senior. In this booklet, we look at various aspects and advantages of reading aloud with seniors.
First, with seniors, just as with children, great differences exist. For instance, some seniors in the 90s and even above 100 years of age are both physically and mentally fit, whereas some people in their 50s and ever younger suffer from diseases that cripple both their bodies, such as diabetes, and their minds, such as early onset dementia.
Many seniors can still read aloud. In that case, if they have the energy, these seniors can take turns with us when we read aloud with them. Also, these seniors can read aloud with children, and that makes a great way to promote intergenerational bonding. Perhaps, these seniors read aloud to their children’s generation, and now, they can read aloud to the grandchildren’s generation or even their great grandchildren’s generation. What a great experience it can be when today’s children experience the same books being read aloud that their parents experienced and being read by the same people. Precious!
What about those seniors who lack the energy to do reading aloud or whose cognitive skills have declined too much to read aloud? No worries. We can do the reading aloud during our sessions with them. However, we must do this with delicacy. If we do the reading, they may fear that we are treating them like small children. Seniors, even those with serious disabilities, want to be seen as independent. I remember when my family had a visit from our 90+ year-old aunt, who needed a cane to walk. When my wife would try to hold her arm to help her walk, our aunt objected, hitting my wife’s hand until she let her walk alone.
An article in Reader’s Digest – https://www.rd.com/article/story-time-is-for-everyone – tells the story of Linda Khan, who spent many hours visiting her 88-year-old father who had been hospitalized and was facing the uncertainties of heart surgery. Although normally a lively conversationalist interested in a wide range of topics, her father now had little to say, and what he did say was understandably negative.
“It is really hard to sit with a person in a hospital,” Linda recalls. “It feels like there’s nothing to talk about except their medical situation.” Fortunately, Linda saw a stack of donated books just sitting in the hospital room. She chose the one that had the best chance of interesting her dad. “Right away it changed the mood and atmosphere.” She continued reading for an hour and reading aloud a regular part of her hospital visits.
Too often, seniors, especially those with health and financial issues, are trapped inside the four walls of their home. Their world shrinks dramatically, but books let them travel across distance and across time to places they once visited or always wanted to visit and to times when they were young, healthy, and full of optimism about the future. And, these “travels” are even more enjoyable when, thanks for reading aloud, seniors have someone to accompany on their travels.
The famous developmental psychologist Erik Erikson found that humans’ lives can be divided into eight phases, each with a central issue. According to Erikson, one of the issues for older people is whether we can pass on our knowledge and experience to younger people. The dialogs we have during read aloud sessions provide seniors opportunities to share lessons with others, thereby helping to meet this fundamental need.
About two years ago, I attended a wake for a retired colleague of mine who had been a leader on the Singapore education scene. One of his grandchildren, a university student, approached me and asked if I could tell him about his grandfather. I assured him that his grandfather was a widely-respected and kind person, and I offered to meet with the young man to share stories. At the same time, I wished that this sharing could have been done by his grandfather. Perhaps, reading aloud sessions could have partially served this need.
Reading aloud session also enable seniors to reminisce. Just as particular songs remind us of certain times in our lives, so too do certain books. For instance, in the 1970s the nonfiction book Diet for a Small Planet had a big impact on me, pushing me to become a vegetarian. Fiction can have similar impact. For example, at university, I took a course on fiction by African-American writers, and my views were changed by the experience. I hope to revisit those books in the future, as a way of revisiting my past.
Summary: Reading aloud can benefit people other than children, especially seniors. Seniors can either be the ones reading or the ones listening, but in either case, we hope they can take part in the dialog that accompanies reading aloud.