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Reading and wellbeing: ageing and dementia

An exploration of how reading can affect the wellbeing of elderly dementia sufferers, with specific reference to Shakespeare and Wordsworth.
© University of Warwick

Fourscore and upward

Pray, do not mock me.
I am a very foolish fond old man,
Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less;
And, to deal plainly,
I fear I am not in my perfect mind.
Lear in King Lear, Act 4 Scene 7, l. 2978-2982

The first of our two central texts this week was Shakespeare’s great tragedy of ageing King Lear. Together, we’ve thought about the play’s exploration of some of the challenges associated with retirement, and we’ve reflected on what we might be able to learn from King Lear about the importance of treating the elderly with kindness and respect.

Sir Ian McKellen’s interpretation of the play encourages us to reflect on the problem of retirement. Lear goes from being an all-powerful ruler to being merely ‘my lady’s father’, ignored and dismissed by Goneril’s household staff, and this proves an unbearable demotion for the old king. Some of you may be able to identify with Sir Ian’s observation, about the ageing monarch, that in giving away the ‘sway’, ‘revenue’ and ‘execution’ of his kingship, Lear is giving away the authority that defines his sense of self. Lear divests himself of purpose and of status, and it is not uncommon for people today to experience a similar sense of aimlessness and loss upon retiring from their profession. Our discussion of Lear this week might also encourage us to think differently about retirement, and to ensure that we have hobbies, activities and new challenges to look forward to after giving up work.

For many people, of course, retirement is a wholly positive experience, an opportunity to pursue their own interests and passions, and to spend more time on the things that really matter to them. However, it is undoubtedly the case that for people who love their work, and for people whose work takes up most of their time, it can be difficult to adjust to the sudden lack of structure that comes with retirement. It is important to remain physically and mentally active after retiring, and to find meaningful uses of time. Taking part in online courses, for instance, is an excellent way of engaging the brain and connecting with other, like-minded people!

Week 6: Ageing and Dementia

Our exploration of King Lear has also encouraged us to reflect, this week, on the way the elderly are treated, and on the vital importance of carers. As Sir Ian observed in our conversation, Lear is utterly dependent upon the support and patience of his companions. It is far from easy to be loyal to Lear. His behaviour is changeable, rude and petty, and he regularly insults and rejects those closest to him. Indeed, we might even feel some sympathy for Lear’s older daughters, and for Goneril in particular, who is forced to accommodate her difficult father and his ‘riotous’ knights at almost no notice. Yet we instinctively feel that Lear deserves more kindness and respect than he receives from his older daughters, in spite of his unpleasant behaviour. We are appalled that Goneril and Regan would leave their ageing father without a roof over his head, and we admire those characters in the play who faithfully and selflessly stand by their king, demonstrating the patience, kindness and emotional resilience that is so often required of people caring for older relatives and loved ones.

In our conversation, Dr Simon Curtis voiced concern about the treatment of older people in medical contexts. News stories often emerge describing the maltreatment and neglect of the elderly in hospitals or nursing homes, and it is appalling to think that vulnerable people, in need of care, are sometimes treated with so little respect or dignity. At the same time, however, it is important that we acknowledge the thousands of brilliant carers out there, who work so incredibly hard, often with very limited time and budgets, to help us look after our elderly. Many care homes do their utmost to treat residents as individuals who matter, providing activities, entertainment and substantial one-to-one care. We’d once again like to thank all those in the medical and care professions who work so hard to look after us, and whose hard work so often goes unnoticed.

As well as reflecting more generally on some of the challenges of ageing, we’ve also focused, this week, on the associated mental health condition, dementia. The very moving account given by Melvyn Bragg of the progression of his mother’s Alzheimer’s may well have been familiar to those of you who have also witnessed loved ones suffering from this and other forms of dementia. Other well-known people have also started to share their stories of looking after ageing parents with dementia, including the actor Christopher Eccleston, whose article you can read here. Although dementia is most commonly associated with the loss of memory, it can also bring about significant personality changes in sufferers; for friends and loved ones, this is often the most distressing aspect of the syndrome. Sufferers can, for instance, exhibit unexpected outbursts of anger and even violent behaviour. However difficult it may be, it is important to try to remember the person you know and love in these situations, and to realise that their angry behaviour is entirely the result of their disease.

Having listened to the contrasting views of Sir Ian McKellen and Simon Russell Beale on the subject, we asked learners whether they thought it was helpful to think of King Lear’s behaviour as the product of a form of dementia. The question has clearly divided opinion among actors, and we expect it will divide opinion among learners as well. Some learners may regard it as unnecessary and unhelpful to attempt to ‘diagnose’ a character over four-hundred years after the play in question was written; attribute Lear’s behaviour to a medical condition, moreover, and you risk overlooking the play’s complex themes of power, pride and family relationships. Others among you, however, may find Simon Russell Beale’s medically researched and textually substantiated interpretation of the character utterly convincing. Gregory Doran, artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, has spoken very movingly of the painful similarities he observed between King Lear and his own father, who suffered from dementia, and this sense of recognition may be familiar to many of our learners. Doran is currently directing a production of King Lear for the RSC, with Sir Antony Sher in the title role. It is, of course, possible for the two interpretations to co-exist if we accept that Lear’s mental state is determined by an actor’s delivery of Shakespeare’s words, and by directorial choices in a particular production. Simon Russell Beale’s King Lear, then, is suffering from Lewy body dementia; Sir Ian McKellen’s is not.

Although dementia is becoming more and more common due to ageing populations and increased life expectancy, the condition is not an inevitability in old age. According to Dr Simon Curtis, it is estimated that 1 in 3 people will have some form of dementia by the end of life, but this means that many other people will not experience the syndrome. There is a difference between typical age-related memory loss and the memory loss that accompanies dementia; occasionally forgetting words, or where your glasses are, for instance, is entirely normal. Having said that, it can be incredibly worrying to feel as though your memory is worsening, and we would encourage anyone who is concerned to talk to their GP, who will be able to assess the situation and offer the appropriate advice. There are many devices that can improve the quality of life for the infirm and elderly such as Fall Detection Watches and similar devices

In the passage from King Lear quoted above, we learn that Lear is at least eighty years old, or ‘fourscore and upward’, as he puts it. At a time when the average life expectancy was shorter than it is today, this was, as we’ve mentioned several times this week, a remarkable age; yet Lear is not Shakespeare’s only eighty-year-old. We’re aware that portrayals of old age in the media are very often negative, so we wanted to end this section by mentioning two Shakespearean characters who thrive in their eighties. Adam, from the comedy As You Like It, is – like King Lear – ‘fourscore’, yet he is ‘strong’, capable of ‘do[ing] the service of a younger man’, attributing this good health to the avoidance of alcohol and reckless behaviour in his youth. In The Winter’s Tale, meanwhile, the Old Shepherd finds himself suddenly made a gentleman at ‘fourscore three’, after over eight decades of a rustic, relatively poor existence. Aged eighty-three, this Old Shepherd sheds his ‘first gentleman-like tears’, and looks forward to living ‘to shed many more’. For some of Shakespeare’s octogenarians, then, old age brings adventure, hope, and a new, exciting lease of life.

The ‘inward eye’

William Wordsworth’s ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’ – also commonly referred to as ‘Daffodils’ – is one of the poems that John and his mother recite together in Melvyn Bragg’s Grace and Mary. This poignant moment in the novel is based on one of Melvyn’s own experiences, and Dr Simon Curtis, too, described how familiar songs, nursery rhymes and poems can help not only in stimulating memories, but also in improving mood and reducing anxiety.

Interestingly, Wordsworth’s ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’ is frequently mentioned in articles about poetry workshops in care homes, as a text that dementia sufferers enjoy recalling, so we invited learners to reflect on what it is that makes this poem so memorable. The regular rhythm and rhyme of the text, as well as its vibrant imagery, no doubt contribute to its staying power; these bright, dancing flowers, so vivid to the poet’s ‘inward eye’, are vivid to ours as well. Many people remember the poem from their school days, and so prominent is it in the cultural consciousness, that even those people who’ve never studied the text may still find that they are familiar with it. Particular lines and images are referred to so often – in books and films, for instance – that we come to know Wordsworth’s poem even without sitting down to memorise it.

Week 6: Ageing and Dementia

We’re interested to read the reflections of those learners who took part in the Poetry and Memory activity, about the relative ease or difficulty of remembering particular texts. Some of you may have found Brontë’s poem more memorable, because of its regular rhythm and rhyme, while for others, the vivid and jarring imagery of Woolf’s prose will have been most easily recalled; Lowell’s text, meanwhile, contains lots of colours and contrasts, perhaps helping to create a vibrant mental picture. We invited learners to share their memorising techniques after taking part in the activity, and we look forward to hearing about the different approaches you employed. Reading a text aloud several times can aid memorisation, as can word or image association. Some people find walking around while reciting a text improves their ability to remember it, while others might need to write a text out from memory in order to retain it. This activity was designed not to test learners, but rather, to explore the relationship between poetry and memory; we weren’t expecting learners to remember every missing word, so please don’t worry or feel demoralised if you weren’t able to fill in the blanks on this occasion.

For the final time in the course, we invited learners to explore the Poetry Foundation app and website this week, to find poems that seemed in some way relevant to the theme. ‘Forgetfulness’ by Billy Collins, and Dorianne Laux’s Mother’s Day are two of our favourites from the site, and although it doesn’t feature in the Poetry Foundation archive, we wanted to mention Jenny Joseph’s poem ‘Warning’ here, which opens with the amusingly audacious declaration ‘When I am an old woman I shall wear purple’. We’ve included a few of our other favourites from the Poetry Foundation in this week’s PDF, which can be downloaded by following the link at the bottom of the page.



© University of Warwick
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Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing

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