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Once upon a time…

Cuimhne Coordinator Zibiah Loakthar writes:

With World Book Day last week, children up and down the country have been going into nursery and school dressed up as characters from their favourite stories. 

\Children in dressing up
\Children in dressing up

The stories we hear in our childhood, the tales we beg to be told over and over again when we are little until we have memorised them word for word (driven everyone else about mad, and successfully held off bedtime!) are often ones that we carry into our adult lives. 

Milestone books, those first books we may have proudly “conquered” when learning to read by ourselves and other books with special significance, perhaps those we remember being given on a birthday or those that remind us of a special person who read them to us, may drift out of our head as we grow up and become ridiculously busy adults!   Still, when we pause to think about it, many of us Big Ones can recognise how some stories have shaped us, and our worldviews.

Hearing these stories again, spotting books with familiar covers in the hands of Little Ones can be like spotting an old friend, a flood of happy memories returning to make us grin.

For people living with dementia, reading can become a challenge but as Dementia UK’s Practice and Professional Development Lead, Rachel Thompson points out, there are other ways of accessing books.

For instance, ‘Talking Books’, available in libraries or online could help people to continue accessing stories that they might have difficulty reading.

The RNIB has a free Talking Books library for people with visual impairment. To help people continue to gain enjoyment from books, Dementia UK also suggests:

Find out what books people used to read OR if they weren’t avid readers they may have memories of reading books at school? Try reading to them– this can be a nice activity for children to do with their parent or grandparent

If the person has difficulty with concentrating, try short stories, poems or picture books. These can evoke memories and help start conversations, which can bring great pleasure and help the person reminisce

For people in earlier phases of dementia there are many inspiring books written by people living with dementia.

Reading Well Books on Prescription for dementia recommends books people might find helpful to find out more about the condition. These books provide information and reassuring advice, support for living well, advice for relatives and carers, and personal stories. Books are chosen by health experts and people living with the conditions covered. People can be recommended a title by a health professional, or find books in local libraries.

Bookcase Analogy for Thinking About Dementia

In our Irish in Britain, Cuimhne training on dementia we often discuss the Alzheimer’s Society helpful “bookcase” analogy of how dementia affects memory (here’s a helpful video)

“Imagine your brain is a bookcase. Your earliest memories are at the bottom. Your most recent memories are at the top, and you’re constantly adding new ones. All of the facts you know, the memories you have, the skills you’ve acquired. They’re all individual books on a shelf in chronological order. Now imagine dementia is like a storm, a force that comes along, hits the shelf, and rocks it back and forth. When the bookshelf rocks, the top moves more than the bottom, so the newest memories fall off first, while childhood memories on the bottom of the bookcase most often stay put.”

In other words, emotional memories may be accessed more readily than factual memories by a person living with dementia.  And so even where factual memories about the stories we have loved, the books that may once have been so important in our life appear to move out of reach, it may be that the illustrations, or simply handling a familiar book, can still transport us magic carpet style back to a time where we may have felt safe cuddled up on a sofa with someone important to us, and leave us with associated warm feelings of feeling safe and loved.

Everyone’s childhood is different and of course not everyone’s childhood is full of happy memories.  People’s tastes in stories are certainly very different: not everyone is a science fiction fanatic! Tales like Little Red Riding Hood, that may terrify some children, may be other children’s favourite stories.  Some of us may have grown up with stories of mythological heroes like Cúchulainn and the giant Finn McCool, while others will be more familiar with stories like the Three Little Pigs or Pinnochio.   

Some of us may have grown up speaking a language, such as Irish, that we may have not stopped speaking in adult life but which may return to us as where our memories recede, some come from childhoods where book shelves surrounded us, others may have grown up with very little access to books, and of course not everyone knows how to read. 

A person’s preferences simply can’t be second guessed from their place of birth. Taking time to find out about people’s favourite stories, tastes and activities is so important. 

Resources like our Irish in Britain book “My Story” can help capture people’s preferences when it is still possible to communicate these.  Such resources may then become so useful should there come a time when we can no longer easily explain for ourselves what it is that we like, helping family, friends, staff in care homes and hospitals meet our needs and preferences rather than be left trying to second–guess what these may be.