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12/10/2002 - Articles

Reading to the elderly

By: Robert W. Griffith, MD


Carolyn Banks is a successful author who almost 20 years ago took a job at an adult day-care center in Texas. She was supposed to plan and direct activities for the elderly clients. These were people who couldn't be left by themselves during the day when their children or other caregivers were at work. There were a variety of disabilities - some had Alzheimer's disease, others were silent and morose, others just sat vacantly staring.

Ms. Banks had difficulty finding suitable activities for this somewhat diverse group. She tried the games that were available - ring toss and bingo. Sometimes she had the impression that the elders who actively participated were doing so to make her feel better, rather than themselves. Many of them remained totally uncommunicative. She found herself using an artificial tone in her voice -- she became too loud, too bright, and clearly too desperate.

Something was lacking, and she wondered if reading could be an answer. Enquiry revealed that many activity directors in her position would read to elderly day-care people, but almost invariably they chose children's books - picture books with very few words. Ms. Banks searched for stories and articles that might have more appeal to her particular audience. She soon found that just the act of reading itself had a soothing effect. Those elders with normally vacant expressions sometimes showed a flicker of response. One man who had been silent for months began to talk disconnectedly about his distant past. Clearly reading something other than children's books was helping in some way, but it was difficult to determine what material was best. She therefore decided to put together her own anthology.

This proved to be harder than she thought it would be. She asked students from a writing class that she taught to provide short stories. Then she placed an advertisement in a writer's magazine. There was a flood of replies but almost all the stories dealt with illness and death - hardly ideal subjects for the elderly. Not that anyone was pretending that disease and death didn't exist, but she wanted to help the listeners look back on happy or interesting times, rather than forward to the inevitable.

Using a more specific advertisement, Ms. Banks then asked for evocative stories with plenty of description and not much dialogue. Excess, schmaltz, and sentimentality were called for - just the things that fledgling authors should avoid!

Then came the testing period. Ms. Banks tried the stories out on residents at a nearby nursing home. Any response at all was considered a good response. If a story produced a spark it was a keeper. Sometimes a story would elicit a few sentences of conversation; in some persons it might merely bring the hint of a smile. Not surprisingly, stories involving animals were often well received.

There was no way to predict whether a story would be a hit or a miss - and a miss with one audience could be a hit with another. Enthusiasm in the reader appeared to play a role, in so far that anticipation of a pleasing outcome might stimulate an exciting voice, which often proved quite successful. (It would be interesting to know whether older men and women have different reactions to certain stories, in the same way that young men and boys prefer action and adventure, while young women and girls opt more for romance and history.)

Ms. Banks summarizes her views "Reading aloud might not be an exciting activity for someone who does not ordinarily read. Being read to, on the other hand, can be as welcoming as a touch, whether or not the listeners had been readers or the words have literal meaning any longer". At an advanced age, to be touched, in any way, is often the high point of a day.

Two anthologies that Ms. Banks has prepared have been published. 1 , 2 People who are inspired by Ms. Banks' enthusiasm may wish to assemble their own collections of stories and articles suitable for reading aloud to the elderly.


Reading aloud to the elderly
C. Banks, Lancet Supplement 'Literature and Ageing', 1999, vol. 354, pp. 10--11



A loving voice: a caregiver's book of read-aloud stories for the elderly.
C. Banks, J. Rizzo,  et al., Philadelphia: Charles
Press, 1992


A loving voice II: a caregiver's book of more read-aloud stories for the elderly.
C. Banks, J. Rizzo,  et al.,  , Philadelphia: Charles
Press, 1994

Created on: 06/14/2000
Reviewed on: 12/10/2002

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