We have learned over the years to look for the strengths and spared abilities in people living with Alzheimer’s. One of the abilities that we count as a great strength is the ability to read. Many people living with Alzheimer’s (even those in the last stages of this condition) are still able to read. Sometimes, elders say that they can no longer read when what they really mean is that they cannot see smaller print. If we produce reading material in large enough print then many people can still read. There are, of course, some people who lose the ability to read. For those people, we recommend that the reading materials we have created be read aloud to them. We often suggest that people with Alzheimer’s read aloud to their fellow residents who can no longer read. Or, we may encourage reading aloud to a young child. These spared abilities and strengths can be used as a means to give back to the community where the person with Alzheimer’s is living, whether that community is an intentional one, as in a long term care center, or a family home.
Even though we count reading as a great strength, if a person can’t remember what he read five minutes ago, does reading still hold value for that person? Would this experience be frustrating to a person with Alzheimer’s? We don’t recommend that people be given entire books to read, or even an entire magazine or newspaper. Instead, we have developed materials for reading that are a better fit for people living with Alzheimer’s. These materials address the memory deficits as well as the interests and abilities of older people.
Understanding that people with Alzheimer’s are dealing with memory loss and cognitive difficulties, we have created materials that are short, to the point and written in large enough print for the individual reader. We incorporate simple poems, very short stories, songs, hymns, prayers and jokes in our reading program. Our reading program is based on the interests of the people with whom we are working. We discovered that heartfelt emotion, humor and word games are important tools to engage people.
There have been many people who surprised us with their ability to read. From Ava, we learned to always give people a chance, no matter how difficult the circumstances. We met Ava when she was living in the infirmary of a long term care center. Ava had come to the facility when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s; while there, she had a stroke that left her paralyzed on one side, with the use of only one eye. We were surprised when the staff member wheeled Ava up to the table for our reading circle. She was slumped over with a patch on one eye, barely able to lift her head.
We passed out the notebooks we created with the short, funny stories and jokes that we had printed in large font. We looked at each other briefly, wondering if we should hand the book to Ava, but before we could decide, Ava put out her hand and took the book from us. Everyone took a turn reading the stories and jokes out loud. There were soft chuckles and some guffaws as the humorous stories and corny jokes were read by each of the elders. We heard a dry sort of cackle and realized that Ava was laughing, too. Finally, it was Ava’s turn to read and we held our breath, wondering what would happen.
She held the book with her one good hand and turned her head to see the print with her one good eye. Ava started out hesitatingly, in a small, cracked little voice; but as she began to get into the jokes she was reading, her voice picked up strength and expression. The more she read, the better she became at reading. Everything in the infirmary just stopped; the nurses and aides all stood very still, even the aide mopping the floor stopped and leaned on her mop to listen to Ava read. Sitting up straighter in her wheel chair, Ava read the last joke:
“What did the bra say to the top hat? “
She waited just a tick (as would any good comedienne) and fixed her audience with her one good eye. Then came the punch line,
“You go on a head. I’ll give these two a lift!”
As the crowd around the table chuckled, Ava handed us the book of jokes and said,
“Now that was funny!”
Ava taught us to never give up on anyone, to always try, to always give everyone a chance.