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BAB is a partnership of individuals and organisations working together to reduce isolation and loneliness among older people in Bristol.
Shared Reading is a way for people to connect with each other over great literature. All of the reading takes place live, within the group, so group members don't have to prepare anything beforehand. They can drop in, listen, and have a chat. During the session, a trained volunteer leader will read aloud a short story and a poem, pausing at various points to allow the group to talk about what they have listened to so far.
The groups are run across Bristol libraries, care homes, sheltered housing, hospitals, bookshops and more. Each group reads something different every week – modern short stories, extracts from classic novels, Shakespearean sonnets and more.
Recently, one of the participants decided to share her experience with us.
I started going to the reading group in the autumn last year after two friends suggested it. I have mild depression and anxiety and it took me some time before I felt able to take the next steps and attend the group.
I remember I arrived at the library and stood outside the room where the group takes place. I could see through the window that the table was full, the room looked packed and I was about to do a U-turn, but as I was thinking about it, Mina (the joint Volunteer Reader Leader of the group) opened the door, smiled and said, ‘Hello, are you coming in?’. So it was inviting; I felt like the door had been opened - literally! If she hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have gone in that day. Although I like to think, I would have gone back at some point, because I’m not a quitter.
I went in and there were lots of smiles and everyone was saying ‘Come and sit down, have a cup of tea and a biscuit’. It was everything I love about kindness and hospitality. What I also liked about it was that it was very quickly explained that you can participate as much or as little as you want. You can just be comfortable. That was the message I got. No pressure just pleasure - I instantly relaxed.
I’ve always had a fondness for reading, since I was a child, but the last ten years it’s been harder to read - I just couldn’t get into any books. My friends would lend me some but I’d have them for months and months and not read them because I find it hard to focus and concentrate. I think the group is helping me with that. When I’m at home watching the TV or a film, I can rewind if I’ve missed something. But you can’t do that in the group, so it helps me to stay focused. I love the way people jump in with comments, but without interrupting - it’s well-mannered and people are considerate, they include each other.
One of the key things to me is the element of surprise - no two weeks are the same and that engages me and holds my attention. Somebody else has prepared the stories and the poem, somebody else has thought about where to pause in the story and what the discussion points might be, but in a way that is inclusive of everybody there. That makes me feel great because it’s like I’m being given something in a way, like I’m being taken care of.
When you’re already dealing with a lot - loss of financial status, health problems, your own sense of credibility - it’s great that you can go to the group and it’s no questions asked: you don’t have to divulge what you’ve done in the week, it’s not a continuum of “Are you ‘better’ yet?” and I love that. I don’t need to make small talk and it’s not invasive. No-one talks in depth about their ailments - it’s quite upbeat. I really enjoy the lightness, warmth, laughter and ease of the sessions. It’s sort of like a family, without the headache!
I love that you don’t need to remember anything from the week before - everything is fresh each week: what you read is fresh, how you feel is fresh, who comes is fresh, even where you sit can be fresh. Recently, I volunteered to read. I feel like I’m trying to find my voice in a group environment and when I read a bit of the story aloud, butterflies erupted in my stomach. But I did it and it felt…powerful actually.
That’s what I mean about it not being about just reading, but about being more active in the group and about my whole well-being. It’s not only about making a connection to the stories and the poems, it’s also about making a connection with each other. It’s about everything that surrounds it - the walk there, listening to other people’s experiences, having a sit down and cup of tea. It’s my natural thing to be a care-giver and the first few weeks I went to the group it was almost like being on the receiving end of care and I really enjoyed that and it was what I needed. But now I find I’m paying it forward - I’ve told a few people about the group now and encourage them to come. I want to pass it on.
What I see in the group is people showing their worth. People hit a certain age and sometimes illness comes into the picture - mental and physical - and you start to think ‘What am I bringing to the table? What have I got to offer? Have I still got it in me to learn something new? Am I still useful?’The group is about wanting to still keep achieving and not wanting ‘disabilities’ of any kind to hold you back: that one ailment, that one issue or diagnosis, that doesn’t define you. There’s still a brain in there, so don’t judge me, give me an opportunity and recognise that my well-being matters.
I really look forward to the groups. It’s almost like a therapy - because I know what I need right now. It’s my weekly challenge and personal achievement. If I miss the Wednesday reading group I feel a little loss, like I didn’t get my treat and I’ve missed out. So now I put it on my planner as a must do, as if a doctor had given me it as a prescription to be taken for improving my health.
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