Reading reflects key chapters in seniors’ lives

Dog-eared pages, stacks of magazines and a worn library card can all represent the rich relationship senior Canadians have with their books. And Faculty of Information & Media Studies professor Paulette Rothbauer is using these representations to help change conversations about aging.

For Canada’s elderly, reading improves mental and emotional well-being, lowers anxiety, builds relationships and nurtures social relationships.

Yet reading programs for the elderly almost always focus on reading as bibliotherapy: a way to prevent cognitive decline or to treat mental and psychological disorders.

“They fail to recognize the pleasures of reading that are vital for many older adult readers,” Rothbauer said.

Rothbauer is one of the first researchers in Canada to explore and document – through conversational interviews with Canadian seniors between the ages of 75-90 – the value and meaning they place on reading.

Her work is providing nursing homes and public libraries with a better understanding of the critical role reading plays in the lives of Canada’s seniors.

In the process, she is showing books are more than just prescriptions to prevent or cure something unpleasant; they can also be used to nourish and nurture their lives. Books often act as friends, therapists, grief counselors and painkillers.

During their conversations about books and reading, Rothbauer’s interviewees would often end up speaking of their personal struggles, triumphs, losses and their moments of grief and joy.

“When you ask them about their reading histories, they inevitably tell you about their life and what has been important in their lives then and now,” she said.

Many refer to their books as ‘old friends.’ One participant had a pile of notebooks on the table.

“She had her hand on them and she would touch them while answering my questions,” Rothbauer recalled.

The notebooks contained detailed lists of all the books she had read over many decades. In many instances, some of these books brought back memories of important life events – marriage or the birth of a grandson, for example.

“When older people have to move into care homes or nursing homes, one of the first things to go is books,” Rothbauer said. “If books are tied so closely and intimately to who you are as a person, what does it mean to get rid of them when you have to move into smaller spaces?”

For the first time in Canada’s history, 2016 census figures show the senior demographic outnumbers children – and their numbers will continue to grow.

Attitudes and policies towards Canada’s seniors are often one-dimensional, treating them solely as weak, old and frail beings in need of physical care.

Rothbauer’s work is a reminder of seniors’ rich and complex lives, full of stories and experiences. And they signal a need for shaping policies around a range of abilities and needs.

Literary accessibility means more than the physical format of a book, she said.

Rothbauer interviewed one avid 90-year-old reader, who had lost some of her mobility, was on medication and was confined to her apartment most of the time.

She told Rothbauer, “Books help me directly deal with the pain that I have.”

Even though she was alone at home, reading kept her from isolation by allowing her to maintain social connections – her niece, grandsons and library workers would always deliver her books.

Federal and provincial governments actively encourage young people to read but Rothbauer believes they should remember seniors as well.

“Good things also come from encouraging a reading culture, and (providing) access to material to older populations,” Rothbauer said. “It goes beyond just large print or audio-books.”