When we were younger, I used to read aloud to my wife when we went to bed. It was another way of bonding. I recently started to read aloud to her again, this time to help her fall asleep. It works! But there’s so much more to reading aloud than I had realized…
Elder person sitting, reading

Why read to someone?

In her book, The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction, author Meghan Cox Gurdon says that reading aloud to someone is “a miraculous alchemy…that converts the ordinary stuff of life – a book, a voice, a place to sit, a bit of time – into astonishing fuel for the heart, the mind, and the imagination.”

Reading a news article out loud can be a great way to stimulate a discussion or a debate. Reading a novel out loud can calm an anxious listener by engaging their imagination.

Or, you may simply want to allow your listener to be in on what you’re reading, whether it’s an informational pamphlet or interesting piece of news. There are a multitude of reasons to read aloud!

In addition, some elderly people find reading to themselves difficult or impossible — they may be fatigued from their daily activities, their cognitive or visual abilities may not be as sharp as they once were, or your listener simply may not be strong enough to hold up a heavy book for more than a few minutes at a time.

The act of reading aloud is so powerful, it can actually change your brain!

In 2005, Japanese researchers studied the effect of reading to oneself, reading aloud and solving arithmetic problems among 16 Alzheimer patients and 16 healthy persons in a control group. They reported  the results of the study in The Journals of Gerontology.

What they found was that after only six months, those with Alzheimer’s showed a statistically significant functional improvement in their frontal cortex when compared with the control group.

The Alzheimer patients, either at the end of the study or later, showed:

  • improved verbal communication with the nursing staff
  • significantly higher scores for conceptualization
  • significantly higher MMSE (Mini Mental Status Examination) performance than the control group at follow-up
  • significantly higher score for independence at follow-up.

What does this tell us? Reading aloud, whether to someone else or even to oneself, activates the frontal cortex and may have a role in helping to rehabilitate the cognitive functions of Alzheimer patients.

Reading to someone

Reading to someone can be very relaxing

More benefits of reading to someone

The Guardian recently reported on the less medical, but equally important benefits of reading aloud, especially in a group setting. They highlight the shared reading group called The Reader in the UK, which helps bring people together to read great literature.

The Reader calls reading aloud “a simple, non-medical yet powerful intervention which is proven to improve well-being, reduce isolation and strengthen communities.”

Dr.David Fearnley, Medical Director at Mersey Care Centre in the UK concurs.

He acknowledges that in care homes, hospitals and mental health facilities, “shared reading is one of the most significant developments to have taken place in mental health practice in the last ten years.”

Reading to an elderly person during a lengthy hospital stay can make their  discharge home more successful

It turns out that elderly patients who have no documented cognitive loss before hospitalization can suffer a loss of cognition on discharge. This can be due to fatigue, unusual sleep hours, or stress, amongst other things.

Even though this post-hospital loss of cognition is often temporary, it may result in an inability to understand and follow discharge instructions. Which, in turn, could lead to re-hospitalization.

Reading  aloud to the person who’s hospitalized may be beneficial. If they are able, ask them to read aloud to you as well.

What is the best material to read to someone?

If you’ll be reading aloud to a person with dementia, choose something that you think might spark a particular memory – An old engagement announcement from a scrapbook could work, or a long-saved letter or newspaper clipping from a meaningful event.

A biography of a familiar  entertainer or historic figure, political leader or inventor may be of interest. As may be old birthday and anniversary cards; religious passages or travel brochures – especially for places your listener has visited.

Even comics or recipe books can be fun..

If you’re looking for something tailored to the elderly, take a look on Amazon.ca for A Loving Voice II: A Caregiver’s Book of More Read-Aloud Stories for the Elderly. It’s an anthology of short stories written by first-class American authors.

And, if you find that your loved one enjoys being read to, but you can’t always be available to indulge them, consider buying a inexpensive subscription to a books-on-tape library.

Audible, for example, has a $15/month membership where you get to choose one new book per month. Many of the books have the authors themselves read aloud to you, while others are read by professional voice actors, making for a very engaging experience.

Tips for reading to someone

  1. Consider modifying your tone of voice to suit the subject matter. A serious news article might want an even, crisp, authoritative voice. A tender romance will call for a softer tone. Something funny may need you to read in a higher, brighter voice. Smiling while you’re reading will help you achieve that.
  2. Vary your pacing and read with interest. Good writing is never monotonous, good reading shouldn’t be either.. The Welsh author Dylan Thomas recorded his story A Child’s Christmas in Wales in 1951. I heard it on the radio at the time. It’s the most moving writing I’ve ever heard! The pace is in the words, and Thomas’s reading aloud brings them to life.If you’re reading poetry, pause at the end of a line, even if there’s no punctuation. That slight break is part of the rhythm. Author Tania Runyan has more tips in How to Read a Poem.
  3. Allow your listener to participate. That could mean simply making room to reply to a comment or even sharing the job of reading aloud.

So, next time you go for a visit, give reading aloud a try

Whether it’s just you visiting, or the whole family, bring a book along to your next visit. Read a page or two and pass it along, giving everyone a turn.

You’ll be amazed at how enjoyable reading aloud can be!


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