Exercise Your Brain & Escape the Mundane: Read with a Loved One

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Nowadays, Americans of all ages spend a great deal of time staring at televisions, computers and, increasingly, mobile devices. This age of the almighty glowing rectangle has pushed many once-loved pastimes into the background—especially reading.

Caregivers face a considerable challenge when trying to keep aging family members active and entertained. Each patient's abilities (and limitations) are unique, and television appeals to every audience in an undemanding way. However, many medical studies have proven that more mentally stimulating activities can safeguard your brain against memory loss and diseases such as Alzheimer's.

The lasting power of literature

Reading is an immersive activity that transcends time and space, allowing individuals to creatively interpret and envision things they've never encountered before and explore new points of view. This kind of mental workout is exactly what doctors recommend to preserve cognitive function as we age.

Unfortunately, the tests of time can also affect our elders' eyes and coordination. If your family member suffers from diminished eyesight or tremors and is unable to read independently, they may still enjoy being read to. It can be a bit of an adjustment initially to get used to listening to books rather than viewing them, but it has been proven that listening comprehension and reading comprehension are very similar processes.

Reading together is a relatively cheap (if not free) means of escape from the myriad stressful situations that caregivers and patients grapple with on an everyday basis. Not to mention, getting lost in a good book with your loved one can be an enjoyable bonding experience. Subsequent discussions about characters and their actions can prove to be a surprising way to get to know one another on a deeper level.

Selecting your reading list

Initially it may be difficult to choose a book that you both will find entertaining. Ask your loved one if there is a title they have always wanted to read or if they have an old favorite that they would like to revisit. (My grandmother so loves the Southern classic Gone with the Wind that her paperback copy is nearly falling apart!)

Be sure to consider your elder's cognitive abilities when selecting a book, though. Short stories, essays, or even children's books may be better options for elders with dementia who have difficulty staying focused or remembering details.

Here are a few ideas and recommendations for finding books to enjoy with your loved one:

The best medicine: Studies have shown that laughter has a number of beneficial effects on the mind and body. Reduced stress levels, improved short-term memory recall and an overall boost in morale can be achieved through a few daily chuckles. Reading humorous books with your elder is an easy way to incorporate some comic relief into your day. Ladies are sure to appreciate Nora Ephron's candid humor as she writes about getting older in I Feel Bad about My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman. Comedian Billy Crystal inspires laughter in readers as well, with a nostalgic look back at his childhood in 700 Sundays.

Let's get away: Caregivers don't tend to have much free time, especially when it comes to taking a vacation. Similarly, the elders they look after probably haven't been able to travel for pleasure in quite some time. For some caregiver-elder duos, a literary journey may be just the thing to help them experience life outside of their home without even stepping out the front door. Whether you choose a travel book on the French countryside, a science-fiction novel full of mind-bending time-travel or a thrilling mystery that takes you around the world in search of answers, both you and your loved one will revel in these mental adventures.

Special interests: Hobbies and interests in certain celebrities are also helpful starting points for selecting books. If your father is an automobile enthusiast, he may enjoy a book on the history behind his favorite manufacturing company or the evolution of today's "supercars." Autobiographies by Katharine Hepburn or Sidney Poitier may be perfect for your mother if she has always been captivated by films and old Hollywood glamour. Revealing biographies or memoirs of baby boomer icons can often be more entertaining than fictional dramas and romances!

Low-and no-cost literary resources

Reading with a loved one doesn't have to break the bank, here are a few low-and no-cost options for engaging in literary pursuits:

Love your library: Although libraries seem to have been forgotten in the wake of the digital age, your local library is still a valuable source of free reading materials. In addition to perusing traditional paperback and hardcover options, be sure to ask a librarian if they have any eBooks available for check-out. Many libraries have adopted systems allowing the public to borrow a selection of digital books on similar terms as print copies, but the best part is that you don't have to remember to return them! Once your check-out period is over, the title simply disappears from your e-reader library.

No e-reader? No problem! Simply downloading a digital reading application such as Kindle, Nook, Adobe Digital Editions, or OverDrive to your computer, tablet, or smartphone will enable you to use your current devices for reading eBooks.

An accommodating alternative: Audiobooks enable caregivers who are also experiencing eyesight issues to read with their loved ones with ease. Your local library should have a selection of titles available on CDs and in downloadable forms through the e-book programs mentioned above. We all know that a busy caregiver's time is extremely valuable, and audiobooks can allow you to multitask while ‘reading' with your elder. As long as you are both able to actively listen together, caregivers can fold laundry, prepare and eat meals, or even exercise lightly with their loved ones while reading.

Online options: A number of different audiobook options are available online, and bit of research is necessary to determine which would be best for you and your wallet. You can purchase discs or download audio files one at a time on sites like iTunes, Barnes and Noble, or Amazon, but there are also monthly subscription services that may come in handy depending on your budget and how quickly you finish books. Many of them even offer free trials. Project Gutenberg is an online database of digitized classic works whose copyrights have expired, making them free to the public. Be aware that you will not find contemporary titles and authors on this site. Project Gutenberg's most popular selections include works by Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Mark Twain, and Oscar Wilde, just to name a few. Their offerings may seem outdated, but these literary classics are world-renowned for a reason! Pixel of Ink is a nifty site that provides lists of eBooks available on Amazon for free or at a reduced price. These updates are posted daily and make it easy to stay current on Amazon's most recent limited-time offers. They even sort titles into bargain bins under $1, $3, and $5.

Enjoying books with your loved one can result in shared laughter, learning, and cathartic release, all of which are vital for a healthy and happy mind-set amid such stress and uncertainty. As aphorist Mason Cooley once said, "reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are." So make a point of treating yourself and your elder to a well-deserved getaway.

Ashley Huntsberry-Lett

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Ashley is responsible for the planning and creation of AgingCare.com’s award-winning content. As a teenager, she assisted in caring for her step-father during his three-year battle with colon cancer. Now, through her work at AgingCare.com, she strives to inform and empower the caregivers who devote so much to helping and healing the ones they love.

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