The Pleasure of Reading to Our Elders

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Nora Lee Peterson reads to a captivated, giggling audience at Morningside Ministries. Author photo.

Nora Lee Peterson reads to a captivated, giggling audience at Chandler Estate's Assisted Living at Morningside Ministries. Author photo.

I didn’t start it. Robert Rivard did, so blame him. I am just following his example. My dear sweet Mother moved into Chandler Estate’s Assisted Living, a part of Morningside Ministries, in February 2009. By then, Rivard had been reading to the residents once or twice a month for several years. My Mom fell in love with Bob. He read Old Yeller by Fred Gipson, Cannery Row by John Steinbeck, poems and whatever else took his fancy. Then he launched the Rivard Report in early 2011 and work demands at a startup forced him to discontinue his visits.

Nora Lee Peterson's mother, Shirley, holds a plate of mouse cookings while being read the Rescuers by Margery Sharp. Author photo.

Nora Lee Peterson’s mother, Shirley, holds a plate of mouse cookings while being read “The Rescuers” by Margery Sharp at Morningside Ministries. Author photo.

Well, I thought, if he can do it, I can do it. So that October I read some stories about bats. My Mom had turned “batty,” in a good way, after she and my Dad took an Elderhostel trip (now named Road Scholar, the not-for-profit leader in educational travel) to Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico.

I used a few of Mom’s bat decorations to set the stage and read an article from Bat Conservation International magazine and the book, “Stellaluna,” by Janell Cannon. The audience was so happy when Stellaluna’s mother found her missing bat baby at the end.

I’ve been reading a couple of times a month since then, even after my Mom died in December 2012. This is so much fun for me, time spent with my good friends at Chandler.

I usually have an appropriate stuffed animal or two with me to help tell the story. I’ve read “Sarah, Plain & Tall,” “Dewey, The Small Town Library Cat,” and “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.”

We are currently enjoying “The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle.” I bring in my animals and we journey together to the Floating Island off the coast of South America on the good ship Curlew.

There are many ways to get ideas for books to read aloud. One of the first things I did was to think of stories that tickle my own funny bone. One December I was remembering holiday books, movies and stories that many folk enjoy. I thought about A Christmas Story movie with Darren McGavin. I found out it was adapted from a book by Jean Shepherd, “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash.” I got a copy of the book and found the story. It was a little long, so I cut out some of the narrative so that it could be read in one sitting.

Nora Lee Peterson reads to a captivated audience at Morningside Ministries. Author photo.

Nora Lee Peterson reads to a captivated audience at Chandler Estate’s Assisted Living at Morningside Ministries. Author photo.

One day, Thelma, a Chandler resident, went to her room to get a tiny blurb that she had cut out of a newspaper some time ago. It was a review of “Cat Love Letters” by Leigh Rutledge. I signed into Amazon.com and ordered the book. The tales of amorous cats were well received by my audience.

When I ran out of ideas for read-aloud books, I talked to Clair Larkin who worked at the San Antonio Central Library in the Children and Juvenile book section. She sent me a list of suggestions. I have found that books about spunky 12 year olds are fun and engaging. Out of her suggestions, I read “A Greyhound of a Girl” by Roddy Doyle and “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo. She is now one of my favorite authors.

Nora Lee Peterson reading to Morningside Ministries. Author photo.

Nora Lee Peterson reading to residents at Chandler Estate’s Assisted Living at Morningside Ministries. Author photo.

My granddaughter, 11-year-old Emily, told me how very much she liked reading “Where the Red Fern Grows” by Wilson Rawls. This turned out to be a great suggestion. I realized that reading longer books over several months worked as well as books read in one sitting.

One resident, Bonnie, has been a loyal listener to my readings for more than four years. She wrote, “We always know we are in for a treat when Nora Peterson comes to read to us. She always has props that relate to the stories. Many of the readings are about animals, so Nora carries a large tote bag full of stuffed animals. She reads with expressions and gestures that make the story come alive. We are so thankful to have Nora come to Chandler Assisted Living.”

James Estes has been activity director at Chandler since 2009. James told me that his job has been “an exhilarating experience” and that “the residents are like extended grandparents to him. The staff can’t possibly do all the things they would like, so we count on volunteers to bridge the gap”. He told me of another group, Readers from the Heart, who read short stories and articles to help keep the residents connected to the outside world. Other volunteers run Bingo games, host monthly birthday parties for the residents, or bring in live animals for the residents to see and touch.

“Spending time with the oldest members of the community was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life,” Rivard told me. “They have so much to give and share, yet circumstances separate them from society. They are so grateful for meaningful company, yet I found they gave me more than I gave them in the end. I still miss reading to all my old friends.”

Are you ready to get engaged more in the community? I say, if Robert Rivard could do it, and I can do it, you can do it too. I suggest you try it sometime. There are so many of our precious elders around San Antonio whose day would be brightened by hearing you read them a good story. If reading in front of an audience is not up your alley, try one of the other volunteer activities at Chandler or at one of the many other senior centers in San Antonio. The residents have some interesting stories of their own to tell, so stick around afterwards for a chat. You will get as much, or more, pleasure out of the time spent with people as the pleasure you give to them.

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7 thoughts on “The Pleasure of Reading to Our Elders

  1. American culture is known to be rather oblivious to its elders, unlike other cultures where the elder is honored and well tended. It takes so little to brighten an older person’s day. Most are very appreciative. I’m sure Nora’s audience treasures the time she spends with them. A question for Nora: Hearing loss is common among older people (including Yours Truly). Have you had to accomodate listeners in your reading sessions who can’t hear very well? In what way?

    • I am well aware of that issue. I make sure to project when I read. Some of the listeners sit close to me with their good ear facing me. That is one of the reasons I started using props to help tell the story. One of my good friends at Chandler would love to attend the readings but her hearing is too limited. I always make time for a personal visit when I am there.

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