For a period of time, more than a year, my dearly departed mother-in-law was confined to her care facility but was still able to talk on the telephone. We lived a continent apart, so face to face visits were out of the question. It was difficult to have conversations with her as she was somewhat depressed and her life experiences were limited to a dulling sameness of institutional routine. Although her body was aging and ailing, her mind was sharp. I sensed that she needed intellectual stimulation, that such stimulation would probably help her cope with the new realities of frailty, isolation, and boredom she was facing. I decided to provide some of that intellectual stimulation by setting up a reading program for the two of us. In the beginning, we took turns reading, page for page. Later, she would simply rest and listen to me reading a chapter at a time.
We read Dickens, Conan Doyle, and P. G. Wodehouse. We read poetry, from Robert W. Service’ ‘Ballads of a Cheechako’, to a collection, ‘Love Poems from God’. Sometimes, after our readings, we would talk about important things, the readings somehow gave us permission to discuss mortality, death, the meaning of life, mothering, family relationships, and how to cope with reduced circumstances. She chose the literature and in so doing introduced me to many authors and stories I would not otherwise have encountered. It was a very special time, a window that closed when she could not longer hold the telephone.
Her health dwindled over many months, and finally, this spring, she was in her last days. Her family had gathered, and though she was unable to hold a conversation, she was able to listen to a story read over the telephone while the phone was held for her. At this point she had been through one health crisis, and given hours to live. But she had rallied, and I was able to talk to her on the telephone and read her one last chapter of Jeeves and Wooster. I gave a rousing reading, animating all the voices in different characters to the best of my limited acting ability. It was great fun, and although I could only hear Helen breathing on the other end of the line, I knew she appreciated it. After the reading ended, her eldest son, who was in attendance, texted me, “That was amazing! She perked right up!”
We know that reading aloud to young children, even babies, is important for cognitive and emotional development. What do we know about the importance of reading aloud to the elderly? What do we know about reading aloud to Alzheimer’s and dementia patients? What do we know about reading aloud to the terminally ill, or those recovering from catastrophic health crisis?
I have been developing a theory of linguistic cognitive domains as a way to explain how our innate drive for connectivity is satisfied through communication – whether we are talking, writing, drawing, painting, dancing, sculpting, etc. We can consider any form of artmaking as a form of communicating, and any from of communicating as satisfying our need for connectivity. The role art plays in fostering and sustaining connectivity is one line of inquiry to explore. Another line of inquiry is the participating in art appreciation as a form of connectivity. In this activity, it is shared appreciation of creative expression that performs the mechanism for fostering conversation and building connections. Thus, reading aloud is an artful expressive event (as we act out the parts we are reading), a shared event (as we appreciate the author’s work) and a connective event (as the contents of the readings inspire conversation after the reading is completed).
It seems to me that there are some very simple, relatively easy programs that we can implement that would create mutual benefit across ages, mobility, socio-economies, and cultures. I would like to see us developing networks of connectivity for reading aloud to each other. The possibilities for an improved sense of community, health and well-being is as close as a telephone with a good book in hand.