Australia’s population is ageing, and ageing well if the glossy brochures, TV ads and magazine articles are anything to go by.
Many older Australians are living life to the full. They might be on the road or travelling overseas, volunteering, studying, starting new enterprises, following lifelong interests or taking up new hobbies and activities.
These older Australians are leading busy lives and are socially connected, physically active and mentally stimulated.
But government statistics show that up to a third of Australians over 75 are living in isolation and many of these will experience severe loneliness.
The Australian Government’s Department of Health recognises that the social isolation and loneliness of many older Australians is often linked to a range of physical and mental health conditions including depression, reduced capacity for independent living and increased suicide rates.
The government is so concerned about the mental health of older Australians that $82.5 million has been provided for new mental health services for people with diagnosed mental disorders living in residential aged care facilities.
The UK has similar concerns for its ageing population and has found that bibliotherapy and facilitated shared reading group programs offer a practical and stimulating way to support wellbeing and improve mental health in the wider community as well as for those in residential care.
The Reader, an organisation that has been involved in improving wellbeing and reducing social isolation across and beyond the UK for over ten years, advises that community and government services are now facing a hugely challenging mental health landscape.
In the UK the issues are clear – one in five older people in the community suffers from depression, 29% of households consist of one person living alone leading to social isolation and one in four British adults will experience a diagnosed mental health problem in any one year.
When discussing the wellbeing and mental health benefits of facilitated shared reading groups, Dr Helen Willows, a GP from North Shropshire, advises “This approach has the power to transform the lives of the people that we see day after day at our surgery – those that are stuck, perhaps with low moods or who are socially isolated – these are people for whom another prescription or tablet is not going to make a difference.”
Not surprisingly, facilitated shared reading group programs are becoming increasingly popular activities in community organisations, retirement villages and residential homes in the UK, USA and Australia.
Bibliotherapist and shared reading group facilitator Nerelie Teese likens her shared reading groups to a social book club without any work or preparation.
“Shared reading group members don’t have to do anything before coming along and there’s no pressure on them during the activity, I read aloud for them.”
“Reading aloud and sharing great books and stories is something I’ve loved doing throughout my career as a high school teacher librarian and reading consultant. Seeing teenagers taking part in and enjoying a shared reading group is a very satisfying experience. When some gasp with surprise or there’s a burst of laughter you know they’re engaging with the story and what’s happening.”
“With community shared reading groups the social interaction over a cup of tea or coffee afterwards provides opportunities for talking but more importantly is often the beginning of social inclusion. Having someone say, ‘A cuppa would be good, love, I’ve got five minutes for that,’ could lead to the first conversation someone’s had with new people for a while,” Nerelie Teese continues.
Her bibliotherapy studies stem from a Bush Poetry Road Trip along the Newell Highway in 2013.
“I had an opportunity of performing in retirement villages and nursing homes in central NSW and southern Queensland. I chose classic Australian poetry such as Dorothea Mackellar’s ‘My Country’and Banjo’s ‘Clancy of The Overflow’and ‘Mulga Bill’s Bicycle’and included some of my work in the presentations.”
“Seeing the enjoyment on people’s faces and listening to their stories over a cuppa showed me how important and beneficial literature, poetry and stories are to all age groups.”
“Hearing about someone’s school days because ‘My Country’has taken them back to when they learnt this poem and that triggered memories about riding their horse or walking to school and that links to some of the adventures and mischief they got up to was great fun for them and me.”
UK bibiliotherapist and university researcher Sir Jonathan Bate recommends using literature and poetry to tweak the memory and reawaken remembrances of childhood joy, of happy days and beautiful places, of loved ones we have lost or feeling at peace and being at one with the natural world.
He advises that words have the power to “act like drugs” and that literature and poetry is able to soothe, calm, help and support many people in all sorts of challenging circumstances including anxiety, depression, heartbreak, sadness and grief.
Connecting with words and images in literature and poetry shows that others have lived through similar experiences and survived – long before we were born. This realisation often brings readers the understanding that “This, too, shall pass.”
However losing the ability to read independently due to failing sight and lost strength is a genuine cause of sadness for many older people. And, as aged care workers know, sadness often leads to isolation, depression and other mental health problems.
Research shows when bibliotherapy is offered through facilitated shared reading groups with aged people in or out of residential care their general wellbeing and their mental health noticeably improve.
Nerelie Teese says, “I see my facilitated shared reading groups as more than ‘giving back’ to our ageing population. Bibliotherapy and shared reading groups bring life back to some of Australia’s best stories and poems as well as stimulating the memories and lives of older people who can then reconnect socially without a lot of work or stress. And this leads to greater wellbeing and improved mental health for them.”