Reading stories to people who are living with dementia might well seem counter intuitive - after all, we know that cognitive difficulties and impaired short term memory are often features of conditions such as Alzheimer`s Disease and other forms of dementia. We also know that listening to or reading stories tends to require extended concentration, focus and the ability to decode, comprehend and apply information which has been read or heard. But what if there was an approach to story writing which could be used by authors to make their work more accessible to people who experience the symptoms of dementia conditions? And what if we then read those stories to people in a variety of settings to see what might happen and how they might respond?
Choosing books and stories for people who have dementia
As an author, one of the most important skills I have learnt is the ability to tailor my writing to suit the particular reading and interest needs of my audience. I have found there is simply no point in writing material which suits my own needs as a writer if what I aim to do is to engage an audience and share my work with them in a way which they find enjoyable and which gives them pleasure. Instead it is far more important to write material which has been carefully crafted and designed to suit my audience. Of course this does involve having a good understanding of who my audience is likely to be and how they might experience story writing and story reading.
How to write for people who have dementia
When writing for an audience of people who are living with dementia I have found it is important to focus on several important elements, and to adjust my stories to incorporate each of these. Lets take a look at each one and see how it applies to sharing a story with someone who has dementia:
Lyrical, melodic and pleasant sounding words and phrases - this is important as it helps create a mood and allows the reader`s voice to work the words aloud in much the same way as a good piece of music.
This assists with comprehension and following the plot where possible, although there is a balance between achieving good, lyrical prose and short sentence structures.
Limited number of characters
This makes it easier for someone with a short term memory loss to retain key details of a story such as who it is written about.
Simple, forward moving plot
Rather than a plot which jumps about in time and place it is better to design a story which travels in one direction through time from a clear beginning point, through a period of action and then works towards a logical conclusion.
Repetition of proper nouns
By repeating key elements such as character and place names a story can be made more accessible as the listener or reader is more easily able to keep track of who the characters and places are. Although this may sometimes feel slightly unnatural compared with a regular piece of prose it makes sense when you consider that a person may lose details as they move from one paragraph to the next.
If you decide to embark on a program such as shared reading or bibliotherapy with a group of people who are living with dementia, consider how you can incorporate these elements into the pieces you share. You may find that the sharing of stories leads to a whole host of positive and exciting outcomes which stem from the simple pleasure of sharing carefully planned and created words with another human being.
Anne Vize is also the author and publisher of ;
`Painting ghost gums in the desert` - an easy reading short story specifically designed to meet the reading needs of adults who have short term memory loss or cognitive impairment.