A friend of mine who read the blog I wrote last week (‘The bird is on the wing’) was perplexed by the concept of ‘Bibliotherapy’. She thought that it might have some connection to the Bible. It occurred to me that others might be similarly unfamiliar with ‘Bibliotherapy’ as a therapeutic approach, so I thought I’d start this week by explaining what it means.

The prefix ‘biblio’ is derived from the Ancient Greek word ‘biblion’ which translates as “small book”. In essence, ‘Bibliotherapy’ is a therapy related to books.

‘Bibliotherapy’ is an expressive therapy that involves storytelling or the reading of specific texts with the purpose of healing. It uses an individual's relationship to the content of books and poetry and other written words as therapy. (Wikipedia).

Bibliotherapy’ has been used in a ‘healing’ context for many centuries. Often combined with creative writing, its therapeutic benefits have been shown to be particularly effective in the treatment of depression and there is evidence that the results are long-lasting.

I was introduced to ‘Bibliotherapy’ for people living with dementia by Sharon Dunscombe who founded ‘The Literary Medicine Chest’ Sharon is passionate about the benefits of words and stories for everyone. I attended a workshop facilitated by Sharon for people living with young onset dementia and their families. I also observed a story reading session that she delivered for the residents of a care home. It was clear that the use of stories and poems was engaging, participants were able to contribute in a variety of ways. Memories were prompted and I noted people with dementia recounting tales of their own life experiences.

Polly Wright and Mandy Ross, from The Hearth Centre in Birmingham, were inspirational on the day they delivered a ‘Reading for Wellbeing’ course for Dementia Pathfinders. It was there that I met Charlotte Overton-Hart. So motivated was Charlotte by the potential of this approach, that she signed up for the post-graduate course: ‘Bibliotherapy: therapy through literature’ at Liverpool University.

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From left to right: Sharon Dunscombe, Polly Wright, Mandy Ross, and Charlotte Overton-Hart.

‘Biblio’ always make me think about the French word ‘bibliothèque’, meaning ‘library’ or ‘bookcase. I remember learning ‘bibliothèque’ in French lessons at school. As a child I thought it was an elegant word.

I had occasion last Friday to visit a bibliothèque: Thimblemill Library in Smethwick, West Midlands. I was enchanted by the name ‘Thimblemill’. It sounds like something from a fairy tale.

My reason for visiting Thimblemill Library was to give a talk about ‘Dementia’ at a meeting of the Smethwick Older People’s Forum, part of Agewell CIC.

It was a chilly morning. The meeting was due to start at 10.30am. I was there early, giving myself plenty of travel time in case I couldn’t find the venue, but the Library was easy to locate.

Eight people were in attendance: Chair of the Forum, Dorothy, Robert, the Vice-Chair, Violet, Vivienne, Jane, Josie, Mildred - and Diane who arrived late and flustered by having to wait 45 minutes for a bus. (We paused to give her time to recover and settle in to the meeting).

As tea and coffee and a selection of biscuits and cakes were being served, I wondered what had motivated this group of older people to turn out on the day before a public holiday for a talk about ‘Dementia’. I am always mindful that the subject matter could occur as quite dispiriting, especially for older people who might, themselves, be worrying about their cognitive capabilities or, indeed, caring for a spouse, partner of other relative with the condition.

The group made me feel very welcome. I chose to stand to deliver my talk. I began by asking, and then reciting, everyone’s names. I did this a few times, around the room and back, which they seemed to enjoy. I confronted what I imagined might be people’s fears and anxieties, checking out their current knowledge and relevant lived experiences. As would be expected, everyone in the room knew or had known someone with dementia.

Building on their contributions, I offered some headline facts. I described some of the common difficulties that someone with dementia might experience, illustrating each symptom with examples from the people with dementia who I know. I spoke about the impact on families and what it means to be a family carer; and I shared my personal story of dementia, with my father-in-law, my mother-in-law and, more recently, my father.

I encouraged questions and there were many: What is the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s? Is it hereditary? What treatment is available? What causes dementia (the group had several hypotheses about this)? Does it get progressively worse? Is it a terminal? What help can be provided for someone who is agitated? What happens when someone with dementia lives alone? How can you avoid getting dementia?

These are emotional questions, and to some there are no clear answers. A reflective and thoughtful conversation ensued, interwoven with emerging insights into people’s individual stories. Diane was a font of knowledge: she had worked in dementia care in the US and had returned to Smethwick to care for her elderly mother who had Alzheimer’s.

We talked about loneliness. It became apparent that this was a concern for several members of the group. Only Vivienne still had a living spouse, six people were widowed, and Diane had always been on her own. I revealed that I, too, am a widow. Josie, who had said very little during the conversation, reflected “I’ve been on my own for 38 years”.

Jane shared her strategy for living positively. Three months after her husband died, she had been diagnosed with bowel cancer. She had had chemotherapy twice and is now in remission. She attends several social groups and every day she walks between 1 and 3 miles. “Fresh air and exercise are important for a healthy life” she proclaimed.

Everyone present was in their 70s or 80s. Dorothy commented on her frustration with getting older. “Physically you are constrained” she said, “you want to do all the things you always used to do, but your body just won’t allow it and you get very tired”.

My visit to this group made me think about ‘resilience’. How admirable it was that these women and one man were carrying on with their monthly meetings, despite adversity in their lives. I realised that the group itself was the main attraction, spending time together to connect and nurture mutual support. My talk about ‘Dementia’ was of secondary importance.

I wanted to leave on a hopeful note. “Dementia isn’t inevitable” I said. “Of everyone aged 80 years and over, only 20% have dementia; by far the majority, 80%, have normal memory function. It isn’t something that everyone gets as they grow older”.

It had been a constructive morning, everyone was smiling as I left. “Do come again” offered Dorothy. “You would always be welcome” chirped Diane. “It has been really interesting” was Violet’s concluding remark.

I intend to accept Dorothy’s invitation. I would like to meet these people again. I am curious about their lives and what Smethwick has to offer them. I am also keen to find out about the origin of ‘Thimblemill’.

So, I am on a ‘biblio-quest’: to write a story about this impressive Agewell group, elaborating on their personal histories (if they are willing for me to do so) and exploring the nuances of their lives in this erstwhile industrial town in the Black Country.

Incidentally, the word ‘bible’ has the same etymology as ‘bibliotherapy’, so my friend wasn’t entirely wrong. Of course, bibliotherapy can be about the Bible, if that is what the person being engaged is motivated and fulfilled by; equally it can be about any other religious text, or none, indeed about any kind of written word: classic novels, contemporary writing, poetry, rhymes, songs and rhythms. Making meaning from words is personal; and the therapeutic benefits are person-centred and powerful.

The names of the people attending the Smethwick Older People's Forum have been changed for confidentiality reasons.

Please get in touch if you would like to learn more about ‘Bibliotherapy’ and the resources that can be used to support story and poetry reading sessions with people with dementia; and if you know the origins of ‘Thimblemill’ in Smethwick, please do let me know! I can be contacted by email askbarbara@unforgettable.org or by telephone at the Unforgettable office.