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Montessori Reading Groups for Dementia

One of my favourite parts of the DementiAbility workshop is when we run a reading group. We break into groups of four and everyone experiences how much fun it is to read a book “The Montessori Way”. It is a pleasure to watch as the noise level in the room increases as the participants share anecdotes triggered by the story as they take turns reading.

Reading Groups for people with Alzheimer's and dementia are one of the easiest and most successful ways to put the Montessori dementia care concepts into practice. It’s ready to go, of interest to the participants and you’ll see fast results. When I’ve visited facilities after staff have attended the “DementiAbility Methods: The Montessori Way” workshop, those that have implemented reading groups are always excited by the results and the positive impact on the residents. It really is easy to do and very effective.

Montessori Reading Group

Reading ability is often spared in dementia – the ability often remains long after other abilities decline. Even though the person may not be able to speak in full sentences and you think they aren’t able to read, often you can be pleasantly surprised by their response when they are encouraged to participate in a dementia reading group. A regularly scheduled reading group is a great activity that is very beneficial, popular and easy to present.

A Montessori reading group for dementia is not just an ad hoc gathering of residents reading together. It’s a specific approach that is the result of research done by Dr. Alan Stevens at Myers Research Institute. The readers are carefully designed in terms of content and presentation to reduce distraction and maximize participation. The presentation of the activity is designed to not only encourage reading but to lead to engaging conversation.

Reading groups are a fun and easy way to engage a small group of participants in a lively, interactive activity, but it does take some preparation and thought.

The keys to success are:

  • selecting participants who interact well together with no single person dominating
  • ensuring that the topic is of interest to all participants and that no one will find anything offensive about it
  • recognizing that the purpose is for you to guide and encourage the participants to interact and tell their stories, not for you to tell stories to them
  • understanding that the goal is not to finish reading the book, but rather, to have everyone participate and enjoy the interaction

The ideal size of a dementia reading group is four participants, although up to six can work. Try to choose a group who have a common interest that matches your readers. You need an identical copy of the reader for each participant so that they can follow along easily. To make the activity more interesting and engaging, have some support material such as photographs, songs or stories prepared in advance that you can use to encourage discussion during the reading.

Start by seating everyone around a table and handing them their copy of the reader. Have them open the reader to the first page and explain to them that each person will take a turn reading one page. Start by reading the first page out loud, then turn to the first participant and say “Now you read”. Make sure that everyone turns to page two, helping them if necessary. As the story progresses use your support material or simply ask questions to help encourage conversation and reminiscing. Remember, the object of the activity is to have a good time, not finish the book.

As you would expect, the more often that you hold a dementia reading group, the better you will get at it. But what also holds true is that the more often the same group of participants get together in a reading group, the better they will get, through the process of “repetitive priming”. Once the group has been together a few times, they settle into their respective roles and the activity practically runs itself.

One way to get started is to evaluate potential participants by having them read a few pages in a quiet setting, one-on-one. Match up two people based on

  • Their reading ability – if one person reads slowly and stumbles over words, a faster reader may get frustrated
  • Their personalities – try to make sure that one person won’t overwhelm the other and prevent them from participating

Once you have two participants, add others as it seems appropriate.

Once you start the group reading, don’t be in a hurry to get through the book. Encourage conversation and interaction and ask questions. You will find that with some groups, each page generates conversation spontaneously and the participants interact with each other readily. Other groups need more encouragement and it helps to use props and outside resources.

Keys to Success
  • Choose compatible participants
  • Select a reader that all participants will enjoy
  • Encourage the participants to tell stories and interact
  • Limit your participation to guidance and encouragement, not telling your own stories
  • Remember that the goal is having enjoyable interactions, not finishing the book

To help you to get the most benefit from every reading group, our Dementia Reading Group Activity includes a laminated discussion guide for each reader with page by page suggestions for discussion topics, questions and even sensory items that can be used to make the activity more interactive and engaging. If you run out of time before finishing the reader, ask everyone if they would like to do it again and if they agree, carry on next time from where you left off. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying each of titles over two or even three sessions.

Many times when someone tries to conduct a reading group on their own for the first time, it doesn’t flow as easily as they expected. When I visit their facility, they often ask if I will demonstrate how I do it.

In one case, of the four residents selected for the group, only two people wanted to read. Rather than try to convince the others to read, we just alternated between the two willing readers. As it turned out, everyone participated in a lively discussion about a topic only vaguely related to what we read. Rather than getting everyone back on topic, I just let the conversation go where it wanted to go. We ended up only reading about five pages of the book. I suggested that we mark our place and resume from there next time. Each participant agreed they enjoyed reading together and wanted to do it again some time. It turned out to be a great session and a pleasant, engaging pastime for the 15 minutes or so that it lasted.

In another reading group I was asked to help with, the participants consisted of three gentlemen that enjoyed reading. Unfortunately, two of the participants were not well matched. The first was a natural storyteller and was quick to jump in and offer his input while the second person needed time to form his response – this is what caused the problem. On several occasions, the second person was still getting his thoughts together when he was sidetracked by the first participant’s immediate, animated response. The third participant was content to listen and support the comments of the others – he fit in well with both.

We finished the entire reader and there was lots of discussion, but at the end of the session, when I asked the group if they wanted to read again some time, the second participant said that he didn’t think so. I was surprised, because he seemed to be enjoying himself, but in fact he was frustrated by the overwhelming presence of the other person – he wanted to be in a reading group where he was in the spotlight.

Each dementia reading group is different and it is important to recognize the personalities involved and find a way to enable and encourage everyone to participate to the best of their abilities.

Here is a great video showing a reading group in action. You can download our full instructions for reading groups here, and see our selection of readers on our website.

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