The English writer Joseph Addison once said that, “reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.” A few centuries later, the writer Neil Gaiman would say that, “a book is a dream you hold in your hands.” They were definitely onto something!
Reading is a wonderful and enriching pastime for people of all ages. Whether your choice is a fun novel or an educational nonfiction book, reading is a proven way to keep your mind sharp and help keep loneliness at bay. Unfortunately, while millions of older adults love to read, it’s not always the easiest activity to take on due to some of the mental and physical changes that come with aging. However, there are lots of easy strategies that seniors and family caregivers can put in place to make reading fun, easy, and engaging again.
As Dr. Robert Shmerling, a rheumatologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center has put it;
“There are solutions that work for most obstacles to reading… and for most people, it’s a great way to keep up with what’s happening in the world and to keep the mind working.”
The Health and Lifestyle Benefits of Reading for the Elderly
It’s hard to overstate just how nourishing and fulfilling reading can be for older adults — mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
For starters, reading is just a fundamentally enjoyable activity for many people. It’s an inexpensive and easy way to travel the world, learn about new things, or see from someone else’s perspective — and you can do it all from the comfort and safety of home! In a Pew Research Center study, 80% of adults 65 and older say that they read mainly for pleasure.
Meanwhile, a growing body of research suggests that reading on a regular basis can have enormous benefits for older adults, including:
- Improved memory and recall
- Stress relief
- Better overall sleep
- Lower risk for cognitive changes such as dementia or Alzheimer’s
With all that being said, we know that it’s not always so easy for older adults to keep up with their reading lists.
When Reading Becomes Challenging: What Seniors and Caregivers Need to Know
Let’s explore some of the health and lifestyle challenges that may make reading a bit more difficult for the elderly — and what you can do to help your elderly loved one rediscover their inner bookworm:
Research suggests that as many as one in three elderly persons has some form of vision-reducing eye disease. Our eyes tend to weaken over time, leading to vision changes that can make it harder to read for long periods of time, including double vision, nearsightedness, or difficulty adjusting in dim lighting.
Fortunately, there are all sorts of simple steps that can help:
- Look into electronic reading devices, such as iPads, Kindles, or other eReaders. These devices generally have well-lit screens, and make it easy to adjust the font size on the virtual page.
- Search for large print books. You can find large print texts through most major book retailers, such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble, as well as your local independent bookseller.
- Use a book light. There are lots of simple lights that make it easier to focus on a print book, including versions that clip to the side of the book and some that are placed directly on the page itself.
- Magnifying tools can make it easier to blow up small print. There are magnifiers that you can hold in your hand to use as needed, and some that you can place on the book to help enlarge the entire page at once.
Difficulty holding the book for long periods.
Over time, older adults may experience any number of physical changes that can make it harder to hold a book, including arthritis and neuropathy, which cases pain or numbness in the extremities. Other seniors may have tremors, or difficulty with shaking hands due to Parkinson’s disease or Multiple Sclerosis.
Here are a few ideas for making reading more comfortable for seniors:
- Invest in a book rest or book holder. There are models that stand on the floor like a music stand, and others that sit comfortably in your lap. In either case, these devices are designed to help make it easier to hold a book steady, without any strain. For a DIY solution, you could also prop up the book using a pillow.
- Look into eReaders. These devices can help make it easier to turn the page with just a tap, rather than having to fumble with the corners of your book.
Cognitive and mental changes.
Reading is a great activity for keeping your mind sharp and active — but this can also make it more difficult to engage in casually. As the Harvard Health blog puts it, reading “requires attention, short-term memory, and recall, which decline a little as we age.”
Many older adults need to read more slowly, and may find themselves having to reread the same passage a few times to really grasp its meaning, which can be discouraging. In other events, fuzzy thinking due to medicine, poor sleep, or malnutrition can make it harder to fully engage with a book. Some older adults experience diminishing attention spans. Dementia and mild cognitive impairment can also make reading harder.
There’s also a social aspect to reading. Many older adults feel isolated and lonely, which can sap their energy and exacerbate feelings of depression — making it harder to have the motivation needed to pick up a book.
Here are a few simple steps to try:
- If focusing is a challenge, Harvard Health suggests attempting to read in a quiet space, free of distractions. Use simple methods that can help keep your attention on the page, such as reading out loud (or mouthing the words), or using a sheet of paper to “reveal one line of text at a time so you don’t skip ahead.”
- Try listening to an audiobook to supplement your reading experience; this can be a great way to make sure you don’t miss any words. You can purchase or rent audiobooks from many different stores and services around the web.
- Add a social element to make reading fun. Start an informal book club among your family. You could even make it a point to talk about books or what you’re reading on a regular basis, even if you’re reading different things. For example, check in over dinner by asking your loved one to share the best thing they read that week.
Live In the Chicago Area? Companions for Seniors is Here to Help
Are you looking for someone who can help make sure that your elderly loved one is able to stay engaged and stimulated, when you can’t be there in person?
That’s where Companions for Seniors can help! Our trained and bonded companions are passionate about empowering the elderly to live more independently. Our mission is to help Chicago’s senior adults to lead active and enriched lifestyles, by connecting them with their community and nurturing meaningful relationships.
Our companions are available on flexible schedules to spend time with the elder in your life. Whether your loved one needs transportation services, a helping hand around the house, or just a friendly face to play games and swap stories, our caregivers can help give your senior loved one the personalized attention and support they need – while giving family caregivers a much-needed chance to rest and recharge.