Reading to Someone with Senile Dementia

My mother turns 97 years old next month.  She has some senile-dementia, as best we can figure out, after a series of mini-strokes occurred several years ago.  The doctors ruled out Alzheimers, for which I’m quite grateful and she has good days and not-so-sharp days.  Her eyesight is very limited and her mobility is quite limited, too but she is a favorite of all who work at the nursing home.  She still loves to laugh and sing and enjoys a good story.

That’s been one of the big ways I’ve been able to connect with her when I visit since, let’s face it, when someone can’t remember much and doesn’t contribute much to a conversation, you run out of things to say pretty fast.  So I read to her after we’ve had a time to chat and catch up on the news.  These reading sessions are times that she really enjoys.  The staff often remark to me how much she looks forward to our times together with a good book.  Just today, the beautician at the nursing home was telling me that she had asked Mom what we were reading about currently. 

Mom told her about a story about monkeys and how a young boy was trying to catch them and having a terrible time getting those monkeys caught.  I was pretty amazed.  That was two books ago and she still remembered the jist of the story.  That’s the power of a good story.

We just finished our latest book and Mom’s comment at the end was “Well, I didn’t think much of that story.”  Hmmm, I remembered that as I looked through the books at our local bookstore yesterday.  As I browsed the shelves to pick out some new books, I reflected on what features make for a good “read” for Mom.  Here’s what I came up with.  They might help you pick books to read to any loved ones in similar circumstances.

1.  Pick books at the age level that they will be able to comprehend.  Just because my mother has a Master’s degree in Education doesn’t mean that she will be entertained now by adult fiction.  I’m finding that books aimed at the Middle School level suit her the best.

2.  Pick a story that moves along ….not one with long descriptive narratives.  Those can be pretty boring to someone who tends to nod off quickly and let’s face it, they aren’t a lot of fun to read out loud for the one doing the reading, either.

3.  Humor is fine but avoid humor that relies on puns, word play or sarcasm.  For some reason, my mother can no longer comprehend this type of humor.  Now, laugh-out-loud slapstick….she can still “get” that.  But humor that is more subtle is now beyond her.

4.  You might want to steer clear of fantasy or science fiction.  You can always try a book or two in these genres and see if they go over ok but I find my mom just can’t grasp stories that go beyond reality as she remembers it.  For example, when we took her to see “Finding Nemo” several years ago, we thought she’d really enjoy it but 3/4 of the way through the movie she looked at me and said, “So what’s with these fish?”  She just didn’t understand the story at all.

5.  Try to find books that have plenty of dialogue.  These stories will move right along although you, as the reader, might be challenged to remember to use different voices for your characters.  I happen to love the challenge of doing different voices for characters and REALLY enjoy doing dialects the most.  I guess it’s that drama training coming through.  If you can pull it off, go for it!

6.  Find books that have short chapters.  These will give you plenty of places to stop if you sense your loved one is getting tired.  I like to stop at the end of each chapter and ask my mother if I should continue.  That gives me a chance to see if she’s drifted off to sleep or still following the story.

7.  When you finish off for the day, leave them with a question pertaining to what “might” be in store for them in regards to the story.  I find that this can create a sense of anticipation which sometimes carries over to your next visit.  For example, you might say something like “I wonder what’s going to happen when Mike sneaks out of the house to look for that buried Confederate gold?  Well, hopefully we’ll find out at my next visit.”

8.  Finally, when you return and take up the story again, try to give a short “recap” of the story up to the point where you left off.  I usually will begin by saying something like, “If you remember, when we last left Mike, he had found an old map that he thought had clues to where there might be some Confederate gold buried.  He was planning to sneak out of the house during the night after his family went to bed and try to look for the gold.  Let’s see what happens.”

I have to tell you that I get as much enjoyment out of our reading sessions as I hope my mother gets out of them.  I hope you can find someone to bless with these suggestions, too.

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Hot Flashed Funk

  • Hi Dee,
    Sounds like great advice. My mother, who lived to 97 with dementia (but not Alzheimers – my Dad had that) was not able to keep up with being read to, but one thing I discovered was that the movies they chose to entertain the elders were childrens movies and she hated them. I went out and got DVDs of the movies that my mother would have watched when she a young woman and stars she would have recognized. Loretta Young, Greta Garbo, Jean Tierney, and the singing of Jeanette MacDonald, Clark Gable, Bogie & Bacall, Spencer Tracey and Kate Hepburn etc. For my mother, that was where her head was.

    I wonder if the same might work with reading – finding stories set in the 30s or 40s around where she grew up. Never thought of that. Although I did make up photo albums of her in her youth, her family, and of the area where she was raised. She loved showing them around.

    It sounds like you are doing a great job of keeping her interested. I think I’ll point my daughter to your blog so she can see how it’s done right! Gotta get’em trained young.

    Laura Sawyer (Laura too)

  • Those are good tips even for reading to young kids. We just finished reading Stuart Little and the kids love reading the Magic Treehouse series.

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