If you have a parent or loved one with dementia, you’re probably aware of the cognitive decline that can come with aging. For seniors who once loved reading, poor short-term memory and an inability to focus after a diagnosis may mean they rarely pick up a good book. However, reading can greatly benefit people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, and there are ways to help your loved one continue to enjoy this hobby.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or CDC estimates that almost 6 million people in the United States have Alzheimer’s disease or a related form of dementia. For these people, reading can be an inexpensive and easy way to feel better. In general, reading regularly can help reduce stress and increase social connections, while reading into old age can reduce memory decline by more than 30 percent. At the same time, life-long readers have been shown to be better protected from Lewy bodies, which cause dementia. Many people with dementia retain their ability to read, and experts recommend that they continue to do so.
This guide looks at the benefits of reading for people with dementia and how to help your loved one continue reading. It also has information on how to join a library and how they can assist seniors and people with dementia.
Libraries can be great resources for all seniors, providing free access to books, entertainment and a social atmosphere. For people with dementia, it can offer a calm environment in a public space. This is especially true for seniors who were regular library visitors earlier in their lives. Libraries can also provide you and your loved one with information about their condition and resources on caregiving.
For many seniors, health declines as they get older. For people with dementia, this decline is generally seen in progressive cognitive impairment. However, as reading is exercise for the brain, it can help keep the brain fit. Although the benefits of reading haven’t been widely studied, research shows how it can improve senior health.
Numerous studies available show that reading can delay the onset of dementia. A 2013 study found that people who read have a slower rate of cognitive decline, and a larger study from 2018 found a significantly lower risk of dementia among people who report daily intellectual activities, such as reading books.
There are also reports that reading can decrease symptoms among people already diagnosed with dementia, although these tend to be more anecdotal. One Australian researcher observed that reading groups helped improve the mood of people with dementia and decrease agitation and isolation. Some experts also believe that reading every day helps preserve memory and language. This can help slow the progress of dementia.
For many older adults, stress increases the severity of dementia symptoms. Thankfully, reading a good book can reduce stress. Although no studies focus primarily on seniors, the research that has been conducted shows benefits to people of all ages. A 2009 study found that just 30 minutes of reading reduces stress as effectively as yoga. A similar study from the University of Sussex found that a person’s heart rate and stress levels decrease by 68% after just six minutes of reading.
Reading in groups, such as in book clubs, can build social connections. Discussing books can help people with dementia maintain analytical and verbal skills; this activity also provides the opportunity to talk about any feelings brought up by recent reads. This can be especially useful if seniors are reading about the experiences of other people with dementia.
Reading also increases empathy. This lets people understand other people's feelings and is essential to building relationships. Seniors who read books that concentrate on characters' inner feelings may find it easier to stay connected to their family and caregivers.
A study into the reading patterns of 3,600 older adults suggests that reading increases overall health. The long-term research found that the risk of mortality decreased by 20% in people who read books compared to those who don’t. However, the study only saw benefits in book readers; reading magazines or newspapers didn’t provide the same results.
Most people with dementia retain their ability to read, especially in the early stages of the disease. However, some effects of the condition may reduce the enjoyment they get from reading, making them unlikely to pick up a book. This includes short-term memory loss and difficulty focusing. The following tips can help you encourage your loved one to continue reading.
Spend time reading together. This doesn’t necessarily mean reading the same material, although that’s an option. Rather, if you’re quietly focusing on reading, your loved one may also find it easier to concentrate on the reading material.
Reading aloud to people with dementia can help them focus on the story rather than struggling to concentrate on the page. It still has all the benefits of reading, such as focusing on a story and thinking about the content. In addition, it gives you the opportunity to discuss the book with your loved ones, which can enhance these positive impacts. Audiobooks may also help seniors with dementia enjoy stories.
Experts suggest that the best books for people with dementia have the following elements: pictures, a clear main topic and 10 to 15 lines of text. When these elements are combined, they cause less brain strain, which equates to more reading time.
It’s important to pick material that interests the reader. Although children’s books often meet the above criteria, the plots don’t generally capture the imagination of older adults. Thankfully, there are authors writing specifically for people with dementia, such as Emma Rose Sparrow and Hugh Morrison. The Alzheimer’s Association maintains a list of authors that your loved one may enjoy.
There are further recommendations based on how far the condition has progressed:
It can be frustrating to pick up a book and forget what’s happening in the plot. For seniors with short-term memory loss, this is a common problem. You can help your loved one make notes about the plot at the end of each reading session. They can then review the notes before they continue reading, allowing them to focus on enjoying the story.
Book clubs can enhance the benefits of reading by encouraging seniors to think about and discuss stories. Bibliotherapy is one type of reading group that can help seniors with dementia. It’s built around the benefits of reading aloud as a group. In this practice, a facilitator reads books about the condition or creative works to a group. In people with dementia, these stories can spark memories that encourage talking and remembering. You may wish to investigate if there’s a bibliotherapy group for people with dementia near you.
It can be easier to focus without any distracting elements. Set up a quiet reading nook with comfortable seating and good lighting. Turn off the radio and television or choose soothing background music. Eliminating these distractions can help people with dementia concentrate on reading material.
Have suitable reading material available in your loved one’s environment. This lets them easily find something to read when the urge strikes. Suitable material can include books, newspapers and magazines.
Joining a library is a good way to get free access to a wide range of books. You may worry that specialized books for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease won’t be available in your local library. However, many libraries have interlibrary loans available so you can access a broader range of books, including educational resources about the conditions. You can also talk to your librarian about ordering these books, as having these resources available benefits the whole community.
If your loved one doesn’t already have a library card, you can help them become a library member. As libraries are generally run by city or county governments, the steps to sign up can be slightly different. However, it’s generally a simple process:
The librarian can also give you information about any dementia-specific programs available at the library.
You may also be able to sign your loved one up online. In some libraries, an online membership gives you access to digital media, such as e-books and audiobooks. In other libraries, residents with an online membership gain full access to the library’s collection. This allows seniors who don’t drive to access a wide range of materials.
Again, the steps to sign up online may differ between libraries, but are generally easy to follow:
If you’re looking for a wider range of books to interest your loved one, you may be able to join a library in a different city or state. Often, state libraries and libraries in big cities allow people from anywhere in the state to join. Your library may also have reciprocal borrowing privileges with other library systems, giving you access to other collections.
Many seniors with dementia have other conditions that can make reading difficult. This can include poor eyesight, stiff finger joints and difficulties accessing materials. The following resources can help older adults continue reading as they age:
|Description||Who This Helps||How To Access||Type|
|Books printed with larger text||People with poor eyesight||Available in bookstores and libraries||Large print books|
|Electronic devices for reading, with the option of enlarging text and adjusting brightness||People with poor eyesight and people with arthritis who find it difficult to grip a book||Can be purchased from bookstores and electronics stores||E-readers|
|Screens that sit over text, making it larger||People with poor eyesight||Sold in bookstores and department stores. Also available through assistive technology suppliers||Magnifiers|
|A recording of a book read aloud||People who have lost their sight or struggle to focus their eyes for long periods||Available in libraries and for purchase online||Audiobooks|
|A stand that holds a book open||Seniors who have difficulty gripping books, such as those with arthritis||Available for purchase in bookstores and department stores||Bookholder or bookrest|
|A comfortable chair with good lighting||Anyone who experiences pain from sitting in one spot for long periods||Stand assist chairs and recliners are available from assistive technology suppliers||Comfortable reading spot|