My favorite work at the Mansion – my favorite work almost anywhere – is my weekly reading to the residents. I come in the early afternoon on Tuesday and we spend an hour or an hour-and-a-half together.
During the week, I pester Connie Brooks at the Battenkill Book Store for books of special interest, books that are quirky, surprising, funny, or that raises issues we can think about and talk about it.
It’s tricky balance, there are so many different issues. One is eyesight, many of the residents can’t see clearly, another is hearing, many can’t hear without my clearly and loudly enunciating.
Still annother is memory and distraction, some of the residents will speak suddenly or talk loudly to the person next to them, forgetting that I am in the room. Some pay close attention, they say nothing but never take their eyes off of me. It is challenging.
I take it seriously. I write down the books they love and shed the books they don’t. My batting average is getting high, I was close to 100 per cent today.
I watch their eyes to see who is watching and staying awake, and who is listening. Some listen closely but never speak.
I tend to focus on advanced children’s books – middle school and up, that are unusual or surprising. I read from poets like Shel Silverstein and Robert Frost. I don’t want to go over their heads, their attention spans can be short, almost all are heavily medicated.
I don’t want to go below them either.
Some fall asleep during the reading. I look to see what books keep people’s attention and bring them back and buy others like them. I have read mysteries, biographies, and books that play on words. Those are much-loved.
And many of the residents are changing all the time. People who were alert six months ago are not now. Time has it’s own special paths in the Mansion.
I don’t want to infanticize them, or patronize them and I don’t want to bore them. Today I brought books about feelings, one about fish in the sea, one about a cat left behind at grandma’s when her beloved child goes off on vacation, the story is about how grandma handles a lovelorn and frightened cat.
There is also a story about a Llama who nearly destroyed the world by overeating. That got their attention.
I also tried something risky and different. Today I got a new book about the writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and his much loved journalism. He is my favorite writer.
Although Marquez, a Noel Laureate, was much loved for his fiction, he always considered himself a journalist. He loved journalism, as do I. Unlike me, he was one of the great writers of modern times.
The book is a collection of his journalistic writings, which are as wonderful as his novels. I read two stories to the residents, one about the President’s Barber, and another the art of reading a newspaper.
I watched them carefully and told them about Marquez’s life and my love of his books. To my surprise, they loved the stories (Julie, the activity director, though they were depressing) and they asked me to read some more of them next week.
I’m going to bring his much acclaimed novel, One Hundred Years Of Solitude next week, it is mystical and colorful and surprising. We’ll see. The more I think about it, the more I see how natural a fit for the residents this wonderful book might be.
I think the Marquez book and the other, lighter and cleverer books were a good mix. I see they can handle serious novels, and they also love bright and colorful stories about animals. They laughed a lot and listened a lot.
Each week, I read a story about a different aspect of aging and we discuss it. The conversations are getting easier and more open. I see this takes a while, there has to be trust and familiarity.
I think what is most important to the residents is that I show up every week.
I’ve been reading to the residents for months – my readings are now standing room only – and I’m just figuring out how to read to them in ways that are useful and stimulating.