My Mother, the Reader

As she ages, one thing hasn't been lost.

Posted Jan 11, 2019

(NOTE:  Unlike most of our columns, this month’s blog is written in the first person, by Nancy, because the topic is very personal, but, as always, we have worked together on it.)

Shutterstock, used with permission
Source: Shutterstock, used with permission

I just came back from a week spent visiting my mother in Florida.  At 92, she is in a nursing home there, ten hours away from where I live in Georgia (a legacy from when my parents retired to Florida, with so many of their generation, over 25 years ago), so I don’t get to see her that often.  Each time I see her lately, I am struck by the truth of the statement by Donald Hall, former U.S. poet laureate, that “old age is a ceremony of losses.”

My mother has lost much.  Fifteen years ago, she lost the use of her legs to a spinal infection following a broken hip.  In 2013, she lost her husband of 62 years to lung cancer.  And now I am watching, helpless, as she loses her quick wit and keen interest in life, at times even her grip on reality, to the gradual ravages of senile dementia

But one thing she has not lost is her identity as a reader. 

Over and over this week, when they put her in her wheelchair in the morning, or back in her bed in the afternoon, when she woke from an unanticipated nap, or was wheeled back from lunch, she would ask me, “Where’s my book?”  She took a book with her everywhere, clutching it like a talisman.  She has an ever-replenished shelf of paperbacks across from her bed (nursing homes are hard on books). When for Christmas I gave her three new copies of some old favorites, she was delighted, explaining to me proudly, as though I hadn’t known her my whole life, “I’ve always been a reader, you know.”  She pages through magazines of all kinds and still loves getting her daily newspaper, commenting (mostly with disgust) on the front-page news each day of my visit.

I’m not sure how much she actually reads, any more.  She sometimes seems to open whatever book she is holding at random, reading a page here or there in no particular order, and when I fetched in the newest newspaper each morning, I often found the previous day’s, still too-neatly folded, under her Bible on her bedside table.

But being a reader clearly still matters to my mother.  It means she still has something to say in conversation about the current state of politics or science or whatever is in today’s headlines.  It means that she is still “keeping up,” still informed, that she hasn’t “lost it” like so many of the aging people she sees around her.  I know that this belief is partly delusion, a symptom of the very dementia she repudiates, though surprisingly, research suggests that this type of delusion may be protective as we grow older.  Stronger cognitive control beliefs are associated with more positive self-concept, enhanced subjective well-being, and better memory performance in older individuals, independent of objective health status.  But also, given what we know about the importance of reading for maintaining intellectual skills as we age, reading may actually be helping my mother delay some of those ravages of aging.   

And reading gives her many other gifts as well.  Even when she is alone, as she is far too often now, through reading my mother can keep company with old friends, authors she has read and loved for years, and draw comfort from familiar verses she used to know from memory.  Even though she can’t travel any more, indeed cannot move herself out of bed or across the room, my mother can open a book and be in another place and time of her choosing, witness to and imagined participant in countless stirring or mysterious or romantic happenings.  Reading keeps the door of my mother’s small, shared room in the nursing home cracked open, at least a little bit, to a broader world of beauty, action, and significance. 

My mother, the reader, gave all these gifts to me a long time ago, reading to me as a young child, talking about books, taking me to the library, and buying me books for birthdays and Christmas—the same gifts I return to her now.  And if, as her energy fades and her vision darkens, she can no longer read for herself, then I will read to her from the newspaper, from her Bible, from the other authors and books she knows so well.  She may understand only in patches and parts, but she will smile, because my mother is still a reader.  

References

Hilgeman, M. M., Allen, R. S., & Carden, K. D. (2017). Identity processes as a predictor of memory beliefs in older adults. Aging & Mental Health, 21(7), 712-719.

Kaup, A. R., Simonsick, E. M., Harris, T. B., Satterfield, S., Metti, A. L., Ayonayon, H. N., Rubin, S. M., et al. (2013). Older adults with limited literacy are at increased risk for likely dementia. The Journals of Gerontology. Series A, Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, 69(7), 900-906.

Zahodne, L. B., Schupf, N., & Brickman, A. M. (2018). Control beliefs are associated with preserved memory function in the face of low hippocampal volume among diverse older adults. Brain Imaging and Behavior, 12(4), 1112-1120.