READING CAMPAIGN: How the joy of books is helping Sheffield's dementia patients

Kath Horner.
Kath Horner.
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Reading a passage from one of your favourite books can sometimes bring back fantastic memories of days gone by.

But for one particular group of people this simple pleasure takes on a much more important meaning.

Sheffield Alzheimer's Society Day Centre.

Sheffield Alzheimer's Society Day Centre.

The Reading Friends project aims to bring together people suffering from dementia to sit together, read and swap stories.

It is a simple project with a simple aim – getting people with these memory diminishing conditions to read something in the hope that they remember something.

Sheffield has been chosen as one of four areas in the country to pilot the project, and for volunteers who deliver the sessions there is no greater joy than seeing that light bulb moment when one of the participants remembers something from earlier in their life.

Retired teaching assistant and Upperthorpe Library volunteer Barbara Jones, aged 63, who leads the session at Sheffield Alzheimer's Society Day Centre, said: “It is satisfying when you see that they can recall something from their past.

Starting from the far left and going round the circle are:- Anne Lindley, support worker Holly Leonard, Marilyn Greysam, Brenda Chudyckyj, centre manager Deborah Watson-Leary and Barbara Jones.

Starting from the far left and going round the circle are:- Anne Lindley, support worker Holly Leonard, Marilyn Greysam, Brenda Chudyckyj, centre manager Deborah Watson-Leary and Barbara Jones.

“Some who take part are quiet and I think they like listening to the rhythms of the poems, but others are really keen to join in the discussions.

“I think the condition can make people feel isolated but this makes people feel involved in something.”

Many of those who attend the sessions are aged under 65. .

The meetings are focused on reading stories and poems that could evoke something in their memory.

Some of the scrapbooks used by the group.

Some of the scrapbooks used by the group.

Said Barbara: “At one of the sessions we talked about stories to do with games that children used to pay outside in the street such as skipping before computer games became commonplace which would be relevant to them.

“Another story was focused on wearing hats to special occasions. Obviously in their lives, they will have been to weddings, christenings, etc so that also relates to them."

Participants also look through nostalgia books focusing on different decades, such as the 1970s and 80s, while books looking back at the recent history of Sheffield also play a part.

The scheme is in its early stages and project leaders are keen to point out that they are just testing the water with it.

But it has already helped one participant Brenda Chudyckyj, aged 61, who was diagnosed with vascular dementia five years ago.

She said: "I like looking through books with old pictures of Sheffield showing things like the hole in the road. It helps me to remember places that I have been."

Another participant at the centre looks through a book chronicling the history of Sheffield United to help him remember going to watch the Blades.

Meanwhile, the group is also encouraged to create colour boards to help them recall key events in their lives.

Deborah Watson-Leary, manager of Sheffield Alzheimer's Society Day Centre, said: "They created a blue scene and it reminded one of our service users of the sea, which led her to remember holidays in southern France.

"So one thing can lead to another, it's like a chain reaction."

Barbara explained how she was keen to get involved in the project to help others with dementia as her 92-year-old mum suffers from the same condition.

She said: “We started noticing problems about three years ago when she could never remember timings of family meals, or she would start cooking and then lose her chain of thought.

"She was a school teacher for about 40 years and it is frightening to see as she is not quite the same person she used to be.”

Having seen first hand the benefits of the Reading Friends sessions, Barbara also enjoys reading to her mum.

Said Barbara: “She always loved reading and got me interested in it. I'm reading a book at the minute that is a compilation of light-hearted letters that people have sent to newspapers about their pets.

“It's a nice way to spend time together.”

Reading Friends is a national scheme led by The Reading Agency and paid for by a £1.2 million lottery grant.

It is being delivered locally by the Sheffield Dementia Action Alliance until June next year with a potential view to expanding the scheme if it is a success.

Volunteers from Burngreave Library, Woodhouse District and Community Forum, Fir Vale Community Hub, Woodseats Library and Upperthorpe Library have led the sessions. So far about 30 people with dementia have taken part.

Kath Horner, a member of the Sheffield Dementia Action Alliance, said people living with dementia and their carers can often feel “isolated, alone, and left to their own devices.”

But a key message of Reading Friends is to tackle this by “providing opportunities for people to take part in the life of their local community.”

She appealed for anyone who would like to help at the sessions to contact her on 07757 619009.