How can a familiar pastime bring us closer this holiday season?

By Nikki Jardin, Publisher and Co-Founder of Mirador Magazine

Note: This article first appeared on TeepaSnow.com. This blog content is the intellectual property and copyright of Positive Approach, LLC. This material is being reprinted with permission and may not be used, copied, reprinted, or republished in any form and for any purpose except with the prior written permission of Positive Approach, LLC.”

My Aunt Rebecca was a terrific volunteer. She was a docent at the Seattle Aquarium, led school outings as a naturalist along the Puget Sound, and participated in all kinds of neighborhood activities.  A favorite volunteer gig was reading to kids at the local library during storytime. She loved being with the children and providing low key but profound entertainment. 

Many years later, Rebecca continued this practice, only it wasn’t at the local library. At this time in her life, Rebecca was living in independent residential care due to a dementia diagnosis. She would spend her days being helpful in many different ways, including reading to the residents in the memory care wing. She told me it was fun and thought her friends enjoyed the company. She was undoubtedly right. 

A picture of Sara Irvin and her Mother Nancy with a copy of Mirador Magazine

“Read to your adults,” says award-winning author Kate DiCamillo in a recent interview with The New Yorker magazine, a sentiment I wholeheartedly applaud. Reading purely for enjoyment has been touted as a proven method to relieve anxiety, lower blood pressure and increase feelings of calm and belonging.

Reading out loud can offer similar benefits to both the reader and the read-to along with sparking memories and imagination. Best of all, reading out loud offers the benefit of presence. When you are focusing on reading, speaking, and storytelling, you are most likely right in the moment. This can enhance the connection with the person or persons you are with. 

The holiday season offers a familiar series of stressors for families and care partners. The logistics of travel, meal planning, gift-giving and the general blending of personalities young and old can take a toll. When we include a family member with a changing brain this can up the ante, particularly if people haven’t seen one another in many months or in some cases a year or two. “Mom might seem a little different than last year,” or “Pop-Pop isn’t quite the way you remember him,” might be some of the conversations with family members. This can trigger awkwardness or uneasiness about how to spend time together.

Preparing inclusive activities for everyone is key to moments of meaningful connection. Reading together can be a comfortable bridge to intergenerational interaction and the possibility of branching off into further topics of discussion. Reading out loud to one another can also provide engagement without the expectation of a back and forth conversation. 

Of course, as with many things when adapting to our loved ones’ changing environment, the choice of reading materials will make a difference.  It’s important to remember that in many cases, reading is still possible while experiencing brain change but that reading material needs to be accessible. This means looking for books, magazines or other publications that use larger print, or fewer words and more imagery.

A typical book or magazine that has very small words will be tough on people whose vision is changing. Children’s books are formatted in a way that are naturally easy to read and maybe a family member in the Diamond or even Emerald stage would enjoy reading to a young relative out of their favorite book. But if there aren’t any kids around, it may not make sense to share kids books in an adult-only setting.  Along with a growing list of dementia-friendly reading sources, consider looking at cooking or travel books together. These publications typically have short paragraphs accompanied by fantastic imagery that keep the word length to a manageable amount.

Or, are there vinyl records on a shelf nearby? Liner notes are a forgotten art form that can take people on all sorts of journeys. Bonus points if there is still a working record player around. If family members aren’t readers, maybe everyone can take turns reading trivia questions from a game, or notes from holiday cards that have been sent. 

For loved ones who are in Amber stages, flipping the pages of a catalog or magazine offers a nice tactile focus while others might read to the group, relieving them of having to concentrate on the written words. Reading out loud to our Rubies and Pearls can be a lovely, gentle way to offer togetherness and connection. Simply sitting beside them, holding a hand while reading, allows them to both hear and feel the rhythm of your voice, which can be very relaxing and bonding. 

As my Aunt entered her Ruby and Pearl stages and was living in memory care, she was often read to by activity staff and by me, too. I would read drafts of my stories out loud to her. One day, I was reading from our story The Roadrunner and said:

“The scientific name for the Roadrunner is “Geococcyx” which literally means “Earth Cuckoo.”

As I read the word “cuckoo,”  Rebecca softly called out, “cuckoo, cuckoo!” It gave me the biggest smile. She had been so quiet that day, looking so distant, but she was there, listening along and even storytelling herself with that sing-song, “cuckoo!” Her mother, my grandmother, collected cuckoo clocks, and so hourly (or sometimes more!), there would be this cacophony of cuckoo clocks chirping and chiming. Rebecca’s words reminded me of that and I was able to share some of the memories I had in that house when I was a little girl. It lasted just a moment, but that gift of meaningful connection will be with me for the rest of my life. Sharing these experiences with one another can provide memories that last well beyond the holiday season. 

As I read the word “cuckoo,”  Rebecca softly called out, “cuckoo, cuckoo!” It gave me the biggest smile. She had been so quiet that day, looking so distant, but she was there, listening along and even storytelling herself with that sing-song, “cuckoo!” Her mother, my grandmother, collected cuckoo clocks, and so hourly (or sometimes more!), there would be this cacophony of cuckoo clocks chirping and chiming. Rebecca’s words reminded me of that and I was able to share some of the memories I had in that house when I was a little girl. It lasted just a moment, but that gift of meaningful connection will be with me for the rest of my life. Sharing these experiences with one another can provide memories that last well beyond the holiday season. 

Nikki Jardin is the Publisher and Co-Founder of Mirador Magazine, an award-winning, dementia-friendly publication.

This blog content is the intellectual property and copyright of Positive Approach, LLC. This material is being reprinted with permission and may not be used, copied, reprinted, or republished in any form and for any purpose except with the prior written permission of Positive Approach, LLC.”