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Why I volunteer: “To bring joy to patients using the written word”

Author: Lynn-Marie Harper
15 January 2018

Lynn-Marie Harper volunteers by reading at St. Joseph’s Hospice in London. Here she explains the joy this brings to both her and the patients, and how she is encouraging others to do the same.

I have been a volunteer at St. Joseph’s Hospice in Hackney since 2010 and mostly I have read to patients. This was inspired by reading to my father in person and over the phone when he was developing dementia after my mother’s death, before he was transferred to a care home.

The photo above was taken on the respite ward. It is of me reading to Ronnie who came in for respite over several years and his partner Jackie who says being read to helped her relax on her visits. Ronnie was an expert listener who did not read to himself, but really appreciated being read to. He shared his vast knowledge of WWII with me as we read story after story, non-fiction and fiction based on what happened in the war, the Holocaust and all the events surrounding it. An education for me as well as knowledge and amazement from a breadth of sources.

I have read to many people, some unable to read for themselves and most welcoming the company and interest that shared reading provides. It has been a voyage of discovery, reading with some patients on a single occasion or over a few days as they reached their journey’s end, or over several years with repeat respite patients.

Sometimes staff have enquired directly if it is something individual patients would like or I have introduced myself and taken it from there. We have read from a store of books I kept on the complementary therapies’ bookshelves, books from the trolley the public mobile library staff provide and trail round the wards regularly, books they or I as a library worker have obtained on request, in hard copy, Kindle or mobile, and newspapers and magazines.

One patient in her last days, with relations by her bed told me Alice in Wonderland was a favourite and I had an extract of it in a book of stories I had with me. A Little Aloud, from the Reading Agency, was a stalwart to carry with me, with stories and poems. The Bloodaxe poetry anthologies have been received well by poetry lovers and listeners trying it out. For another lady I read all the Faraway Tree Stories and now Heidi Grows Up, which I am continuing at her home where I visit her, or over the telephone.

I read Mark Billingham’s Death Message to someone from his personal cache of Billingham crime novels. One day C said, “imagine a librarian reading me porn”. However Billingham writes “sometimes racy” crime, not porn, but as well as us both being engrossed in the books it amused him when he was in pain and uncertainty.

At a book reading Billingham was delighted to hear I was reading his books at the hospice to C, and signed his book. He had given C much pleasure, and I was glad C had said yes to allowing me to read them to him in his last weeks.

A colleague who worked in the hospice read Jane Austin to a patient who loved her work, and made her a recording of Pride and Prejudice, which she really appreciated. Poetry is a favourite as are short stories, examples being the Book of War Stories and the Guardian Review short stories. It is a way of spending valuable time with patients using words, but over the years there is no genre that has not been useful and available. The psalms from the Bible and the Koran have been requested too.

I read to a lady on the respite ward who requested I visit her at home and did that each week until she died in an inpatient ward. We read our way through several JoJo Moyes novels, and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins was our last cliff-hanging joint venture.

Without a listener a reader cannot read aloud, and without that reader the listener cannot lie back, relax and engage with what is being read, perhaps forget their discomfort or go deeper into the humanity we share in another’s situation. Although if people fall asleep I certainly see the relaxing element coming to the fore. It is hard to fall asleep without relaxation being involved.

As my time of reading aloud is coming to an end, I am hoping to enthuse others who have any inclination to read aloud to patients, to give it a go and to encourage volunteer departments to support them. It has been very fulfilling; I have inadvertently made many friends and enjoyed a huge number of written forms across a broad spectrum. I think that it has been largely a mutual experience.

It  has sometimes been that patients have been hesitant to try since it seemed to involve giving up some control if they have been used to reading silently to themselves, but they have found it to be not a substitute, but another form of enjoyment.

As an ex-library worker I have read aloud to children, and I have also read to groups in the day hospice, but there is something so satisfying reading on a on-to-one, or rather on a one-with-one basis, so please dip your toe into these waters of words. A friend recently returned from Italy where she spends time with her aunt suffering from advanced dementia and reads to her, saying “I don’t think she understands what I am saying but she seems comforted by my voice.”

That is at one end of the spectrum of care that reading together can provide. At the other is when a person knows almost every word you are uttering because they request a book they know so well. In the middle is the joy of reading something neither of you know, true discovery. Across the years the spectrum has opened itself to me and patients alike and I encourage everyone who would like to do this to open the door to the vast enjoyment it can bring.

For more information visit St. Joseph’s Hospice

See more articles in Community engagement

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