Connecting isolated older people through reading; The Abbeyfield Society becomes test site for Reading Agency initiativ

Intergenerational reading taking place in the garden

Older person’s housing and care charity, The Abbeyfield Society, has begun work as a test site for a new initiative driven by The Reading Agency and funded by the Big Lottery.

Called Reading Friends, the project is an exciting new method of empowering, engaging and connecting isolated older people through reading.

As it progresses, the aim of the project is to foster and build relationships through literature; be it via group reading, residents reading to carers, carers reading to residents and even intergenerational work with classes of children from nearby schools.

The experiences of those involved will directly affect how the project evolves before it is rolled out across the UK, with residents at Abbeyfield feeding back through a steering group. Not only will the older people taking part in Reading Friends enjoy the benefits of the project, but directly influence how other older people receive their sessions in future.

Head of Dementia Innovation for The Abbeyfield Society, April Dobson, said: “There is a great deal of evidence that details how positive the benefits of a shared reading programme can be for older people.

“Reading for pleasure empowers; it keeps us learning and mentally active, it can reduce or slow cognitive decline, it takes us off into another world and reduces stress.”

Piloting at Abbeyfield’s Westall House, a Care Home in the leafy Sussex village of Horsted Keynes, a number of Reading Friends activities have already begun.

Launching on June 5th, staff and volunteers at the home performed an Oliver Twist-themed flash mob for residents during lunch-time. Participants dressed up as characters from the Dickens novel as ‘Food, glorious food,’ rang out through the dining room.

Not only was the event a complete surprise for residents, and a kick-start to Reading Friends, but a lead in to a reminiscence and short story group. Facts about Dickens were shared as were residents’ memories of reading the author, as well as discussion around story contents, character similarities and how words can paint images in your mind. It was noted that residents with poor vision found the activity particularly beneficial.

Moving forward, further literary themed events have, or are, taking place including a recent Alice in Wonderland Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, poetry in the garden sessions and an outdoor carnival.

Westall House are also putting strong emphasis on the intergenerational aspects of the Reading Friends project. Activities within a care setting that include input from children typically have strong benefits for both parties, and Reading Friends hopes to further the body of research on the subject through literature.

With already well-established community links, especially with local primary schools, there will not only be reading groups, but plans for residents to produce books for the pupils. Drawing on their experiences and memories from earlier life, they hope to develop a narrative on the Great Storm to be read to the children.

Operations Manager at Westall House, Jemma Thompson, said: “Already we’ve seen high engagement levels from our residents regarding the Reading Friends project. Reading is such a universal pleasure and a pastime for many of those living with us at Westall House.

“Now we are expanding the way in which reading can be enjoyed throughout the house, in a more interactive fashion and very much looking forward to having our experiences shape how this project for other older people in the UK.”

Taking place over a year, Westall House will feedback monthly with a final project update and evaluation in June 2018.

The Reading Agency said: “We are excited to be testing this groundbreaking new project with The Abbeyfield Society, with the support of West Sussex Library Service.

“We believe that everything changes when you read, and we hope that this new project will make a substantial contribution to older people’s wellbeing by combating loneliness and social isolation and keeping more people engaged and mentally active in later life.”