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The Power of Poetry

Chris Lynn, Learning and Quality Leader, The Reader

Chris Lynn is a learning and quality leader at The Reader. In 2016, he launched a new Shared Reading Community with Wigan CCG. Here, he helped set up 18 new Shared Reading groups in local care homes, for people living with dementia and their carers.

During my time running Shared Reading projects in care homes for people living with dementia, I’ve become accustomed to what are, in reality, quite surreal and sad places.

The stooped figure in an armchair, the furrowed brow of a busy staff member, the smell of disinfectant. That strange mix between the medical and residential.

In a place where our harshest human needs are most keenly felt, it would be easy for something like Shared Reading to be forgotten.

So what use does reading aloud have for people living with dementia?

Shared Reading involves reading aloud and talking about what we’ve read. The aim is to provide an opportunity to enjoy the pleasure of the written word and get a chance to share personal responses with others.

Importantly, there’s no expectation to speak, read or remember – just sit back and listen.

The trained Reader Leader creates an atmosphere where group members feel encouraged, listened to and connected to the writing, and each other.

“We’re all knitted together, it’s great!”

–       Group member

A mix of abilities is often apparent, but one of the strengths of the practice is that it meets the person wherever they are. We started reading aloud because it gives everyone in the group, including illiterate people in prison, for example, access to literature.

 “The group has been engaging those who don’t normally speak, which is great to see… The residents have built a good friendship around the group.”

–       Staff member

Re-reading is a big part of any Shared Reading group and so pieces are read more than once, very often several times. This creates time to absorb, to adjust thoughts, or have a breakthrough in understanding.

We’ve found there’s something particularly effective about reading poetry in this kind of space. The musicality, the richness, the rhythm means that listening along to a poem read aloud is a gift, which can speak to our deepest, dreamed realities.

“Here, you talk about things that don’t come up in normal conversation. Important, life things.”

–       Group member

The variety is part of what provides that sense of accomplishment and lift. Poetry is not black and white, so we work on it, together. We create something live in the room and make meaning.

The poem provides an anchor for us to consider thing together, it roots us, however fleetingly, in the moment. People will realise or rediscover memories quite organically – very special moments!

“People don’t look at you when you’re poorly…it’s something different’…it’s a window to me.”

–       Group member

This renewed sense of identity can help people feel more alive and, first and foremost, like a person rather than a patient. And, too often rare opportunity, to care and consider for our emotional lives.

“It’s surprising what comes up. It’s like mining personal experiences.”

–       Group member

Shared Reading provides a new way to care for people with dementia, who are chronically underestimated in our society.

It’s an opportunity to value their vast experience, a chance to talk about what feels true and if conditions are right, see glimpses of our full selves.

Much emphasis is placed on the disease’s limitations, and without denying the real, inevitable decline associated with dementia, I have been able to tap into possibility and potential too.

I am always taken aback by the incredible resilience of the human brain and ability to make sense of things.

With over one million people forecast to have dementia in the UK by 2025, according to the Alzheimer’s Society, we need to continue to find ways to live better.


A Moment’s Indulgence

Rabindranath Tagore

I ask for a moment’s indulgence to sit by thy side. The works

that I have in hand I will finish afterwards.

Away from the sight of thy face my heart knows no rest nor respite,

and my work becomes an endless toil in a shoreless sea of toil.

Today the summer has come at my window with its sighs and murmurs;

and the bees are plying their minstrelsy at the court of the flowering grove.

Now it is time to sit quiet, face to face with thee, and to sing

dedication of life in this silent and overflowing leisure.








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