Unforgettable Notes: Memory-Friendly Reading, Puzzle and Visitor Books

Clare Harris on Memory Cafe Directory

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Reflections by Author Clare Harris

We’re all aware that reading can help prevent memory decline, as described in this article on a Spanish treatment program. However, what about reading for people already living with dementia? Even if you’ve always loved books, reading can be frustrating when it’s hard to remember the thread of the plot, or what happened on a previous page.

Yet it is important to keep reading! That Spanish study suggested that with the right reading material, reading is far more than just a fun activity for people living with dementia. In fact, “reading every day helps preserve language and memory longer,” according to expert Marina Guitart.

The key is “supported reading” with the right reading material.  – the Spanish program used curated content, but a New Zealand study used adapted classics. A successful research study in Connecticut created a range of specially written books, with “only 10-15 lines of text per page, interspersed with clear, intriguing photographs reflecting the content of the corresponding page.”

Why Memory-Friendly Reading Books?

Hurray for such projects – but they are relatively recent. Over 15 years ago, I saw my mom unable to focus on the books she once loved, and could not find the right books to help her. I could read aloud from her old poetry books, but they were too overwhelming for her to read alone.

I had wished I could do something, to create some large print easy reading – but how?

At the time, I was an avid reader and writer myself, creating easy-read books for people learning English. This came from my years working in Thailand, where I’d felt the frustration of being unable to read all the books and magazines around me.

It was the one downside of an otherwise amazing experience, and when I returned to Australia, I began to create fun but easy books for my ESL (English as a Second Language) students. But these books were not what my mom needed.

The Missing Visitors!

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Another concern I had for my mom was the issue of visitors. Old friends would call in to see my parents (by then in residential care) and my mom could not always remember who had left the flowers or the cake.

I met other residents who assured me that “no-one had come near them for days” when I knew that their loved ones visited regularly… how could I help them too? There was an official visitor book at the front desk – but just name, date, time – nothing personal.

I could not see what I wanted in bookshops. It felt at the time as though this niche was out of sight, out of mind.

A Way to Create my Own Books

Long after my parents passed away, I found the solution to both those issues. Out of the blue, a writer friend’s husband suggested I self-publish. When I looked online, I saw there were already visitor books: not quite what I’d been looking for, but I knew I could create exactly what I wanted.

I started making Memory-Jogging Guest Books which had space to write about what you talked about, what you brought or took away, and any special messages. I hoped that long after a visitor had left, a staff or family member could remind the resident to look through the book and have that happy sense that “someone cares” even if the visit memory was blurred. 

Getting the Right Input and Expertise

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I wanted to move on to reading books, but was conscious that I had no formal training in dementia care. Well, you know how sometimes the right person comes into your life at the right time? I went to lunch at the home of a friend who’d spent years as an Activities Coordinator. She was passionate about the field. Was it possible – would she advise me?

Yes, she would!

This was when I really got started. First with large print easy puzzle books, then with poetry collections and easy-read books. There were lots of lovely no-text “senior picture books” already on Amazon, but I wanted to create books with text, for people who had always loved reading, but just needed a little support. 

My Vision

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My vision was books in seriously large print, so that anyone could pick them up and feel comfortable. They need to be:

  • Books with vibrant, evocative photographs matching limited text on a page.
  • Books that didn’t signal “special needs.”
  • Books that didn’t mention illness.
  • Books that were uplifting. (Note: When I started my classic poetry collections, I was reminded that so many classic poems start cheerfully, but then turn into a reflection on mortality!) 

I wanted to meet needs that weren’t being met. I’d seen some American classic poetry books online, so I decided to start with British nature poetry, using photographs of cottages and dry-stone walls – all the scenery of my childhood. (I’m a New Zealander by birth, and now live in Australia, but I grew up in the north of England.) I also studied English Literature, so reading through old poetry books was another trip down memory lane for me!

I called myself Unforgettable Notes. I use my real name, Clare Harris, for my language learning books, and I didn’t want to cause confusion. Books by Clare Harris

Ideas and Support

It’s so good getting input and ideas from others. My advisor, Cora, suggested a memoir journal with extra-large print and just a limited space to write. A nurse assessor friend suggested a less “senior” version, for people living with Younger Onset Dementia.

It really takes a village to create each book. I get input from people either with expertise, or living with concentration issues themselves. 

My most recent series, Read and Reminisce (Amazon link) was suggested by one of my editors – a retired librarian, who herself has memories of childhood in a very different era. Sometimes it’s a chance discussion; Cora showed me an article on the challenges of feeling “useless” when diagnosed, which spurred me to write ‘Yes, I can make a difference!’, a book of inspiration for anyone needing constant care.

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Hearing how care residents enjoy activities like “complete the famous saying” led me to create a series of simple “just one line of text” books, Illustrated English Sayings. Talking with pet owners led to simple rhyming verse books, Yes, I love cats! and Yes, I love dogs! I have a long ideas list, and I welcome more suggestions!

Not Just for People Living with Dementia…

I call the books “dementia-friendly” or “memory-friendly,” but of course they’re aimed at anyone with concentration issues. These issues could be caused by stroke, effects of medication, exhaustion, or other cognitive challenges.

It’s so rewarding to read lovely comments in reviews, saying how someone in stroke rehab, or someone’s mother living with memory loss (or nephew living with autism!) loved a particular book.

Now libraries here in Australia are getting interested. Some have book boxes as part of an outreach service, or they’re expanding their “easy reading” section. More and more, libraries are taking on a “dementia-friendly” role, or running supported book clubs … and I so hope this continues!

Of course, a greater hope would be that next year, a cure is discovered and my books are no longer needed – but while they are, I’ll keep writing!

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Clare Harris

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Clare Harris

Clare Harris is an Adult Education teacher and author (M.Ed.) She is committed to “reading for all” and for her memory-friendly books with whom she works closely with Dementia Consultant Cora de la Cruz (B. Dementia Care.)

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