This year I have five new student speech and language therapists doing their project module with me- working on the BCPPA pilot study. As part of their project work I have challenged each of them to write a blog- just to have a go at disseminating and networking in the professional social media domain. First off we have Connie Baird , who has shared a really fascinating and exciting experience of working with people with dementia using poetry to support interaction. Such a creative and simple idea.
Since this is the first time I have ever written a blog, I spent some time thinking about what to write. It was surprisingly tricky to decide, but I’ve decided to talk about how I first began working with people living with dementia.
During my undergraduate degree, I joined a shared poetry group for nursing homes and hospital wards, which used literature to help build social bonds between residents. The scheme focused on improving quality of life using bibliotherapy, an intervention that looks at an individual’s relationship to literature – their memories and their responses to it. Sessions would consist of someone (usually me or another student) reading aloud a poem, followed by a discussion as a group. I thought I would share some poems that were particular favourites, and some of the memories that go with them.
A popular poem was Daffodils by William Blake. We always started the session with one of these classics, as many residents were made to memorise them in school. It was a great way to get people involved – in one session, I read just the first line before a lady in the back finished it off for me, word for word. I didn’t get tired of reading this one almost every week, as the stories that were shared were always entertaining – lots of people shared tales from school and memories of growing up in rural Nottinghamshire. We all enjoyed reflecting on sunny Spring days even when it was raining outside.
When I read aloud The Lamb and The Tyger, one man was reminded of a teacher with an undying love for William Blake. It brought him back to mornings at primary school, standing in front of his class, reciting the poem himself. These poems wrestled with religion and theology, which led to some interesting discussions about respecting people’s beliefs. We used to take out one of Blake’s drawings during the reading for people to look at and comment on, which helped those who weren’t able to hear as well. Blake’s poems are full of rhyme and repetition which also helped participants engage with what they heard.
We also read less high-brow stuff. A favourite was Pam Ayres, who entertained us with stories of eccentric aunts and irritating husbands. I quickly became familiar with her poem Oh I wish I Looked After Me Teeth, as it proved ever popular with those who could remember her from late-night television in the 80s.
An older poem might bring back memories of the classroom, whilst a poem about winter might spark a conversation about Christmas and snow. Even nonsensical poems such as Carroll’s Jabberwocky could inspire a chat about cadence and rhythm. I often read Carroll’s stuff when I felt like the session was going haywire – when someone was falling asleep, or another person told us they were bored. If you read Jabberwocky in a loud, animated voice it can awaken and excite the room.
Not all of our sessions were successful, and lots of people were not interested at all. On reflection, our 1:1 sessions were often the best way to create conversation, especially with those who didn’t get along well in a group. I’ll always remember working with a man – described as non-verbal – who ended up adding a few words about his childhood in Scotland after a reading of Robert Burns’ A Red, Red Rose. Finding his reason to communicate felt like a huge win.
This type of therapy is not in an SLT’s remit, but it’s helped me think about other ways I can encourage communication in my (future) profession. In years to come, I’d like to explore how shared reading groups can be run with SLT support. Dr. Kevin Harvey organised the group in Nottingham, and has also written a paper about on the power of shared reading, which can be found here.