The joy of reading aloud

reading group

from left, Penny, Sheila, Louise and Iris, reading for pleasure

‘If we all read aloud each day, the world would be a better place,’ Philip Pullman has said. He’s preaching to the converted, as far as I am concerned: my 10 year-old and I studiously ignore the fact he can read perfectly well by himself in order to go on working happily through books together at bedtime. It’s acceptable to read aloud to children – even, just about, to 10 year-olds – yet there is much less reading aloud these days among adults. It’s odd that it has become so unfashionable and forgotten an activity, given the success of audio books and of book groups, which prove that much of the pleasure of reading lies in sharing your reactions with others. I have to confess to being a bit of an eccentric in the reading aloud department:  when I had my first child, I was so disconcerted by the long hours of sitting still with my hands full of baby that I insisted on being read to while I was breastfeeding, and got through the whole of Middlemarch. (I was living in the Middle East at the time and there was absolutely nothing on the telly. The enterprise ended when we moved on to Wuthering Heights and found that, for some reason I never quite got to the bottom of, that it was much less conducive to being spoken aloud. Later, I am pleased to say, I mastered the tricky art of reading while feeding.)

Until recently, though, it hadn’t occurred to me that reading aloud was a perfect pastime for older people. Listening to the written word in the company of others and discussing what you have heard is about as un-patronising an activity as you could find: democratic, shared, and exhilarating, allowing individuals to find meaning together, to make connections and uncover memories.

In a public library in Bow, East London, a group is gathering under the aegis of Get Into Reading, a charitable project that also runs regular read-aloud groups in care homes, hospitals, homeless shelters, doctors’ surgeries, schools and offices. Nearly 200 of their groups meet regularly in the UK, mainly concentrated in Merseyside and London at the moment but spreading fast. This one has been meeting for about 18 months and its members have read Animal Farm, Silas Marner and The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy; they are currently about two thirds of the way through Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. Sheila, who is 70, arrives with hyacinth bulbs for the other members. Louise, 81, shows us the new cardigan she has bought in the market; there’s an unhurried exchange of news, some tea and biscuits; then Penny Markell, who runs the group, reads several pages before breaking off and letting everyone talk about the passage. The discussion ranges over the cruelty being shown to the street dwelling characters, what it’s like to feel out of control of your situation and sleeping with people who snore. Everyone has something to say, but there’s no pressure; Penny makes everyone feel valued, every comment an addition. Members can take turns to read aloud if they want but not everyone does; it would be perfectly possible to come to this group and take an active part if you could not read at all. Reading aloud groups are open to all, and members can come and go: being in the afternoon, this one tends to attract older people and those who aren’t working.

book pileThe Reader Organisation, the charity behind the reading groups, is this week publishing A Little, Aloud, an anthology of prose and poetry particularly suited to being read aloud (not Wuthering Heights, then). The publishers advertise the book as offering selections to read ‘to someone you love – to your husband or wife, a sick parent or child, an elderly relative. Or to someone who finds it hard to concentrate for long, someone who finds reading difficult, or simply someone who has never been given the chance to get into a really good book.’ Jane Davis, a literature professor at the University of Liverpool, founded The Reader Organisation because she felt strongly that the pleasures of literature shouldn’t be exclusive or elitest. It seemed to her not only unfair, but wrong, that the pleasures and insights to be derived from reading George Eliot or Tobias Wolff or WB Yeats should only be available to literature students. On its website, the charity claims: ‘The Reader Organisation’s ethos is that literature is not an aesthetic experience but practical help for being human’ – although that seems a false dichotomy; I should have thought the two things were interdependent and mutually reinforcing.

Perhaps what they mean, though, is that literature doesn’t have to be stuffy. Good writing evokes personal responses in anyone who hears it. You don’t need jargon to express the thoughts and feelings it inspires in you, nor to understand what it has precipitated in other people if they take the trouble to tell you. As a tool for bringing together the socially isolated, reading aloud would seem to be extremely powerful. Certainly, the publicity material for A Little, Aloud carries the endorsement of a leading psychiatrist, who calls The Reader Organisation’s work ‘one of the most significant developments [in] mental health practice in the last 10 years.’ The University of Liverpool is currently trying to make a more concrete assessment of its therapeutic value.  I am already persuaded, needless to say, because I find it hard to think of many better routes to emotional, social and moral development than reading literature, but I’ve already admitted I’m eccentric. More importantly, Sheila and Louise and the rest of their group are very much cheered up by meeting once a week to work their way through exciting and demanding and rewarding books. Sheila began coming when she moved to east London to be near her son and knew no one else nearby, Louise when her husband died last year. ‘We have a really nice time,’ Louise says. ‘It’s something to look forward to. We giggled our way through A Hitchhiker’s Guide and we’re really enjoying this one. It’s often sad, but it’s really interesting, and we have some really good chats about it.’

A Little, Aloud: an anthology of prose and poetry for reading aloud to someone you care for, edited by Angela Macmillan with The Reader Organisation, is published by Chatto & Windus on 30th September.

There will be a London launch of A Little, Aloud, featuring a panel discussion featuring Angela Macmillan, Jane Davis and Blake Morrison, patron of Get Into Reading, with readings by Richard Briers and Joanna Trollope at Waterstone’s Piccadilly, Monday 4th October at 6.30pm (call 020 7851 2400 to book your place).


Music making intense experiences for people with dementia

making musicOn a day when it has been reported that if Alzheimer’s were a company, it would be bigger than Wal-Mart, I’ve been to Wigmore Hall to look at a scheme that seems to be improving the lives of people with dementia and those who care for them. Music for Life is hardly on a scale to make a dent in the £388bn it’s estimated dementia will cost worldwide this year, but it does show how creative we may have to be in addressing what is being called the most significant health and social crisis of the century.

Music for Life involves three orchestral musicians taking their instruments into a care home every week for eight weeks, where they improvise with eight residents plus up to five staff. The group sits in a circle, allowing anyone to take the lead. Both the musicians and the care home staff report often being deeply affected by the work, while people with dementia often show changes of mood and ability to communicate. Their relationships with staff and each other can shift significantly.

People with dementia may experience depression or despair, intense anger, grief, anxiety, fear or boredom; they may be agitated or apathetic, frightened or bored, withdrawn or distressed. Many of those with whom Music for Life works have lost the ability to communicate verbally; to find another means of communication requires intense effort, sensitivity and responsiveness. There is increasing evidence that one way to do that, perhaps the best way, is through music. The musicians bring a variety of instruments: hand-held percussion, rain sticks and shakers of various kinds, plus some tuned instruments, such as bar chimes, all ‘selected to look beautiful and to make a lovely sound,’ says Kate Page, an oboist and the project manager. There are no rules. ‘You need 360 degree radar to see what’s coming out of the group and to improvise at the same time. The musicians try to keep the textures open so even the smallest voice can be heard, to pick up signals – body language or tiny cues of stillness or eye contact – and find a way to enhance and augment the communication. We’re looking for high engagement levels – really searching for that person on their own terms, not trying to impose on them, so that they know they are really being listened to and asked to contribute.’

Music for Life has been around since 1993, when it was founded by educationalist Linda Rose, drawing on work being done at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama with young people. Initially, the project was delivered exclusively in homes owned by Jewish Care, but has since expanded with Westminster NHS Trust and is about to start in Brighton. Management of the project was last year transferred to Wigmore Hall in partnership with Dementia UK, and there will be 10 projects this year, up from seven last year.

Sam* has dementia and was seen by the care staff in his residential home as aggressive and distrustful. He was liable to lash out, but staff couldn’t predict why or when, and that affected their behaviour towards him. ‘Music for Life gave the staff an opportunity to sit very quietly, being with him,’ Kate says. ‘It allowed them to explore other aspects of what being Sam might be like.’

There are challenges for all those involved: the musicians must strip away the ‘presence’ that characterises formal concert performance and have to learn to ‘sit on material for a while, to repress the urge to move forward, allowing people in the group time to understand it and find a way in. The sessions tend to have a really open, slow feel. We live in a very fast world and we have to remember that a lot of the people we’re working with are impaired and need time.’ In care homes where staff are often harassed and focused on getting through tasks, Music for Life offers a breathing space for thought and quiet assessment – not just in the hour when the music is being made, but the hour-long debrief that follows. ‘Care staff often don’t have a chance to reflect. This gives them an opportunity to think beyond the practical difficulties facing the people they care for, about their emotional wellbeing.’

Given the limited abilities of people with dementia to communicate, the work can be difficult to assess, although qualitative data from each project is evaluated and the overall programme reported on annually. This year Music for Life will be the subject of research by academics in the Netherlands.

Its aim is not to establish music in care homes, but to affect the emotions, practice and relationships of all three groups involved – musicians, carers and people with dementia. Kate Page believes that the musicians who participate – ‘it’s certainly not for everyone’ – are deeply affected by the relationships they form and what they learn about themselves and their playing. For care staff, ‘it is a chance to think in a less task-oriented, more experimental way.’ One carer has started greeting residents in her group by singing their names, cementing the bonds formed in the circle and finding a way to reach people differently.

Dementia is associated with loss. Music for Life focuses on what is still intact and can be reached, offering people with dementia something they almost never experience otherwise – the opportunity for teamwork and even to direct others, through conducting. ‘As sessions go on,’ Kate says, ‘you see that people look more and more across and around the circle, rather than just at the person next to them.’

The results have been persuasive enough to attract funding from the Arts Council, Barclays Capital, the Rayne Foundation, and a number of other trusts and individual donors. The programme requires intensive, highly personalised work by artists of high calibre, who are called on to lay bare all their sensitivity and responsiveness. Each eight-week project costs £6,500 to deliver, and Wigmore Hall is looking at different forms of collaborative funding to make it affordable for care homes.

With the number of people with dementia expected to double by 2030 and more than triple by 2050, Music for Life is unlikely to become a catch-all therapy. It may, though, offer some clues about ways to reach what is still intact in those with dementia, and to bring an injection of new energy into care, a way of relating. In settings where it is easy to feel ground down, Music for Life offers care home staff a chance to think and feel differently about what they’re doing. ‘The ends of projects can be very difficult,’ Kate says. ‘It’s hard to leave. You create deep relationships and bonds, because you have to go very deep to connect.’

*Sam’s name has been changed


The secret of youth: flares and orange carpet

The Young Ones

Senior housemates

And lo, Liz arose from her wheelchair and walked, and it was all down to the swirly-patterned wallpaper.

The BBC’s The Young Ones concluded last night with the housemates undergoing a series of tests which purported to show pretending you are living in 1975 can make you fitter, better at remembering things and generally more capable. The programme makers put six celebrity elders in a sort of Senior Big Brother house full of clashing geometric patterns, made them wear kaftans and flares, then got a couple of academic types to watch from the garage to see if they got any younger.

Liz Smith, the 88 year-old actor, who arrived in a wheelchair following three strokes, was clipping down the sea front at Worthing on foot by the end and delivering lectures to the rest of us about how best to stay young. Sylvia Sims, 76, who arrived in a state of exhaustion claiming she’d barely been able to walk for two years, was bustling around managing children and dinner parties. She left to be a roving ambassador for AgeUK.

Despite looking amazingly well-preserved, Lionel Blair couldn’t touch his toes when he arrived but made such an improvement that he was finally able to reveal his most closely guarded secret: he was 78. Kenneth Kendall, the most sceptical and, in many ways, dullest housemate contributed the most moving moment when he decided that he was not after all too old to get a dog.

The BBC promises that next Wednesday, one of the academics, Michael Mosley, will present a programme explaining the ‘science’ behind the wheeze. Can this really be necessary? For all the use of computer screens that looked like something out of The Bourne Identity (but were, in fact, lists) it was pretty obvious what was going on here.

Ellen Langer, the other academic and originator of the experiment, gave it away when the redoubtable Sylvia Sims said: ‘What I haven’t quite got my head round is the correlation between taking us back to 1975 and physical improvement.’ It’s a placebo, Ellen said.

Half a dozen relatively isolated people, much less busy than they had been in the past, were expected to be both entertaining and be self-reliant. (The most interesting part came in the middle of the three programmes, when carers were introduced and most of housemates regressed.) They made friends and had a good time playing house in the hideous decor, and they were working, on television, which is one of the highest status jobs known to the modern world. No wonder they felt better.

Perhaps the reminders of their younger selves had some small impact but, mainly, they suddenly had lots of reasons to make an effort. Derek Jameson, gregarious and funny, admitted that his main social activity outside the Senior BB house was getting out his bus pass and going to the library. He struck up an intense and very endearing friendship with Dickie Bird – ‘ a lovely, wonderful man who has lightened up my life.’

What was interesting was not the rather implausible premise of a scientific experiment, but how watchable these six old people were – how interesting and complex and articulate and appealing. They quickly ceased to be curiosities, and became the stuff of any old drama, individual human beings grappling with particular problems, with whom you wanted to engage and sympathise.

Perhaps as the population ages we will finally start to see more old people on television. (As Sylvia Sims said: ‘We’re here, and you’d better get used to it.’) Despite executives’ famous fear of sagging bodies and lined faces on screen, The Young Ones suggested there was absolutely no reason why not.

Falling apart, stylishly

Crazy Age‘I like being old at least as much as I liked being middle aged and a good deal more than I liked being young,’ Jane Miller writes on the first page of Crazy Age. It is an encouraging start, promising a thoughtful, individual and particular take on ageing.

A former English teacher and professor at the Institute of Education at London University, Miller has written a wry, graceful book that makes room for both the tribulations of ageing and its less often explored pleasures. Miller’s seventysomething beady eye observes life from the perspective of one who has seen a lot and is occasionally dismayed, but more often charmed and amused.

Her book is subtitled Thoughts on Being Old but might equally have been called The Consolations of Literature, because her thinking has been developed and honed by a lifetime’s reading. The wisdom and emotional acuity she has drawn from novels and poetry is what gives her perceptions such easy authority and humanity.

Jane Miller

Jane Miller

Poems by Rochester and Robert Burns inspired the ‘crazy’ of her title – which refers, she explains, not so much to madness as to ‘what is outlandish, erratic, unpredictable, unreliable about old age…it means falling to bits, being broken, impaired, mismatched, jagged, out of kilter.’ Old people, in her view, are a bit like crazy paving. Trailing bits of this and that, losing things – even themselves on occasion – they are still ‘impudently here in what is after all our time and space too.’

Miller doesn’t minimise the drawbacks of ageing, noting that the highest number of suicides occur in men over the age of 75, and writing, quite matter-of-factly, about her best friend’s dementia. She reminds us of the more or less constant presence of hospitals in older people’s lives, along with the inevitable forgetting of names. (I was delighted to find that ‘agapanthus’ gives her particular trouble, because it has always given me trouble – along, for some reason, with ‘euphemism’.) She also, though, takes a wicked delight in the ridiculous paraphernalia, what she calls the theatrical props, of old age: ‘the pills and sticks, the shrieking hearing aids and dental weaponry, the tricks for countering the loss of names and threads and glasses and for circumventing insomnia, the visits to The Back Shop.’

Writing about getting rid of a box of family letters, or about reading Anna Karenina in Russian (which she does every morning, a dictionary beside her,) she offers insights that you feel you couldn’t quite have got without her. Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, she notes almost in passing, is that rare thing, a work that deals with the unrequited love of the old for the young, especially of parents for their children. She observes (I had never quite thought this before, although I’d felt it) that accepting that someone really has died can feel like letting them down.

There is a lovely passage in which she returns to the school where she used to teach to find it ‘festooned in captions’ offering moral guidance and lists of contemporary virtues: achievement, effort, excellence, leadership.  ‘Not much talk,’ she notes drily, ‘of subtlety, humour, negative capability, sympathy. Nowadays you can just ‘achieve’, you’re expected to, without specifying what exactly you’re achieving.’

The qualities whose absence she notes are some of her own writing’s best characteristics. Jane Miller is sceptical, rational, ironic. But she is also subtle, sympathetic, humorous, open to possibilities beyond the one that most immediately presents itself. Her writing is elegant and nuanced. She never thumps a tub; she’s not interested in prescriptions – knowing, perhaps, that age is too complicated and personal to be solved or remedied. It can, however, be salved, and often positively enjoyed. There are some things, she suggests, that change for the better as you age – readings of novels that never would have occurred to your younger self – and some things you simply need to have lived a bit to understand.

Crazy Age is published by Virago, £14.99

Come to our ‘what is the point of retirement?’ event


Here is the invitation to Agebomb’s NESTA event on October 5th. Please do sign up!

Innovation for a New Old Age

What is the future of retirement?  68% of Britons now expect to work past retirement age while one in 10 believe they will never be able to afford to give up work.  As the default retirement age is abolished, and the state pension age recedes, what are the implications for graduates who can’t get jobs?  What does the future hold for people now in their forties, fifties and sixties?

NESTA and Agebomb will be considering these questions on Tuesday 5th October.  We will be joined by Marc Freedman, the San Francisco-based author of Prime Time and Encore and campaigner for socially useful, demanding work for people in the second half of life.  One of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs, Marc founded the Experience Corps in the US, and the Purpose Prize, which awards prizes to entrepreneurs over the age of 60.  His new book Shift looks at how baby boomers need to change to make their lives productive, happy and fulfilling.

Baroness Julia Neuberger will give a campaigning baby boomer’s perspective.  Charlie Leadbeater – NESTA fellow and a leading thinker on social innovation, Geraldine Bedell – journalist and founder of the Agebomb website – and Caroline Waters – BT and Chair for NESTA’s work on ageing will also be speaking.

For the last year, NESTA has been running an extensive programme devoted to innovation in ageing, working with individuals and organisations across England and Scotland.  Please join us for a stimulating debate about whether the second half of life can be an opportunity to extend working lives, even give something back.

To register for this event, please click here Date: Tuesday, 5th October
Time: 09:00 – 10:45 (registration and breakfast will open at 08:30 with presentations starting at 09:00) 
Venue: NESTA, 1 Plough Place, London, EC4A 1DE

If not for old people, we wouldn’t have society at all, says Minister


Stolen property?

Last night I went to see David Willetts speak about his book The Pinch and the ideas behind it, courtesy of Policy Exchange. Willetts is always an interesting politician – thoughtful rather than ideological, and exhibiting a fascination with the detail of demographics that is both impressive and slightly exhausting.

The evening really came alive during the questions, which were of a rather erudite standard. Perhaps the most interesting thing Willetts said came right at the very end, when he speculated that if human beings were born adult and died in their prime, most of the institutions that make us human and hold us together would not exist.

It is our vulnerability, including the vulnerability of the old, that means there must be such a thing as society. For the new Minister for Universities, the need for different generations to understand, respect, and play fairly by one another isn’t just a question of the transfer of assets; it’s a moral question.

For Conservatives, who are often understood to resist the idea of a state beyond defence and policing, he argued that the idea of needing to transfer resources across generations is what makes sense of and (though he didn’t put it quite like this) justifies the interference of the state.

Additionally, in a modern and diverse society in which traditional conservative appeals – ‘this is the way we do things here’ –  don’t necessarily work, the idea of an intergenerational contract is something we can all buy into. In fact, Willetts went so far as to say that in an agnostic society, it helps people to attach a meaning to their lives that is about more than consuming.

So relationships between the generations matter a lot. What he didn’t resolve – and doesn’t in the book – is how this is best managed. His first questioner pointed out that affluent boomers can expect their children to inherit their houses after having had a very nice time on gap years and drinking lattes and doing peculiar Generation Y jobs that mainly involve sitting in cafes. So perhaps there’s not so much to worry about after all.

Willetts’ argument in The Pinch is that this won’t happen because boomers have mortgaged and remortgaged their houses, riding house price inflation to consume. A lot depends on what happens to house prices of course; but even if the questioner’s prediction turns out to be correct, it will only exacerbate inequality and make social mobility much more difficult. So it’s hardly desirable.

The big unresolved question of the night (as of the book) was how to strike a balance between the perfectly natural desire of parents to do the best by their children and the wider need of society to ensure it bequeaths possibilities and equity to the next generation. Willetts’ analysis is a brave attempt to get beyond class politics, but somehow class – or at least money – will keep rearing its ugly head. Interesting stuff, though.

Inspiring grannies wanted

alligatorIs there anyone over the age of 65 you could listen to for hours and hours?

My friends Amanda and Elizabeth, who together make up A+E, are on the lookout for individuals who have the kind of accumulated expertise you can’t get from reading Wikipedia and who are capable of telling you about it in a compelling way.

A+E help deliver projects for businesses of all kinds and they’re full of ideas. Right now they’re looking for older people who have stories to tell and fascinating information to impart. They say the people they’re looking for:

may have an unusual professional background, knowledge of a subject through a lifelong hobby, or insights from a wealth of experiences. No topic is off limits at this stage, whether their thing is art dealing, astronomy, ancient Mesopotamia, alligator hunting or Artic exploration – anything under or over the sun.

Does your grandparent, parent, friend, retired ex-colleague or neighbour fit the bill? Who do you know who’s older and simply must have their stories and insights heard?

Email any ideas to / or tweet @amandagore or @lizzieostrom. Our criteria: that they’re based in the UK, that you could listen to them for hours and still want more, that they are in your opinion GREAT, and they’re old enough. No young ‘uns need apply.