The Benefits of Reading and Libraries for Older Adults
Joseph Addison once wrote, “Reading is to the mind, what exercise is to the body.” In the centuries since, scientific research has confirmed his hypothesis. Reading stimulates the areas of the brain where concentration, planning and decision-making take place. It also helps your focus and exercises your working memory. This has been found to help reduce the risk of the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Reading regularly can also reduce stress, increase longevity and enhance social connections.
Books provide more benefits than watching films or television because understanding text uses more mental energy than processing images. Although many studies recommend a lifetime of reading to get the greatest benefits, experts say that you can still see results if you take up reading later in life or come back to it after retirement.
This guide takes an in-depth look at the positive impact reading can have on your life as you age. It also provides advice on how to boost your reading, how libraries can give you access to more books and how to join libraries, both locally and interstate. Whether you’re a lifetime lover of reading or it’s a new hobby, this guide will help you make the most of your local resources.
The Top Benefits of Reading for Seniors
Many seniors find that their health begins to decline as they get older. As you age, you might move more slowly, be diagnosed with a health condition or have more aches and pains. You might also find yourself experiencing more “senior moments,” where you misplace keys, forget someone’s name or have trouble following conversations.
As an exercise for the brain, reading helps keep your mind strong and running smoothly, which can decrease those moments of forgetfulness. Surprisingly, reading can also help to keep the rest of your body healthy. This makes a good book a key tool in your toolbox to maintain your health as you age. The impact of reading has been researched and several studies demonstrate the benefits outlined below.
Settling down with an enthralling book can help relieve your stress. One 2009 study by the University of Sussex found that just six minutes of reading reduces a person’s heart rate and stress levels by 68%. Another study from the same year found that half an hour of reading lowered stress rates as effectively as humor or yoga. Although neither of these studies focused on older adults, the benefits are felt by people of all ages. As increased stress contributes to poor immune systems, heart disease and other conditions, reading can support overall health.
There’s no study that specifically links reading to better sleep, but it’s still recommended by the Mayo Clinic. A nighttime routine and a regular sleep schedule can help you fall asleep easily, and reading can be a good addition to this routine. Just make sure to read a printed book, as the light emitted by electronic devices can make sleeping more difficult.
One long-term study published in 2016 found that seniors who read books live longer than those who don’t. Researchers looked at the reading patterns of more than 3,600 participants in the national Health and Retirement Study. The results showed that people who read books had a 20% reduction in the risk of mortality than nonbook readers.
This suggests that readers are healthier overall than nonreaders. It should be noted, however, that the benefits were only found in people who read books. There was no difference found between people who don’t read and those who only read newspapers or magazines.
Delaying the Onset of Dementia
Over the years, there’s been quite a bit of research into how staying mentally active helps protect you from cognitive impairment. One 2013 study found that people who engage in cognitive activity, including reading, have a slower rate of cognitive decline. Both current reading and reading throughout life had this protective effect.
A more recent Chinese study followed more than 15,000 individuals and found that the risk of dementia was significantly lower among people who reported daily intellectual activities, such as reading books. These benefits were seen independent of other factors, such as lifestyle, demographics and health problems. Much like the 2013 study, the impact was still felt, even when people started reading later in life.
It’s believed that reading and other mentally challenging tasks maintain and build connections between brain cells. These connections help compensate for damage caused by Alzheimer’s disease, helping to preserve your memory. Reading can even be helpful for people already living with dementia, as it can help preserve memory and language. This may help slow the progress of the disease.
Boosts Analytical Thinking and Focus
People who read regularly boost their analytical thinking skills. A 2013 study found that those who regularly challenged their brain by reading, writing or completing word puzzles did better on fluid intelligence tests than others. Fluid intelligence helps you understand, reason and solve problems.
Another small study found that people who read fiction process information better. This makes them less likely to act impulsively, as they’re better prepared for uncertainty. Additionally, when reading novels, you need to be focused to concentrate on the story. This gives you practice in staying focused, which carries over into everyday life.
Increases Social Connection
Although reading seems like a solitary activity, it can actually help people feel connected. The most obvious way reading encourages social connection is through discussing books with fellow bibliophiles. Book clubs allow readers to discuss their thoughs about recent reads. Many seniors also enjoy connecting with children through reading via intergenerational volunteer opportunities.
However, reading can also help you improve all relationships with others, not just those relationships based around reading books. Reading has been shown to increase empathy, allowing you to understand the feelings and beliefs of others. Scientists call this theory of mind, and it’s essential to building relationships. A 2013 study found that reading books that focus on the subjects’ feelings enhance a person’s theory of mind skills.
How To Continue Reading as You Age
Some seniors stop reading as they get older. Poor eyesight, swollen joints and difficulty accessing reading material can discourage older adults from picking up a book. However, technologies, tips and the right environment can help you rediscover your love of reading.
How This Helps
How To Access
Large Print Books
Larger text is easier to see for people with poor eyesight.
Large print books are available in bookstores, and most libraries have a large print collection.
E-readers allow you to enlarge text and adjust screen brightness to make it easier to read. They’re also lighter than many books, making them easier to hold.
E-readers can be purchased online or in bookstores or electronics stores.
Magnifying screens sit over books, magazines and newspapers, making the text larger and easier to read.
Magnifiers can be found in many bookstores and department stores, as well as through assistive technology suppliers
Audiobooks allow seniors to listen to a novel if they've lost their sight or wish to rest their eyes.
Audiobooks are available in most libraries and can also be purchased online.
Book holder or book rest
Seniors with arthritis or other joint issues may find it easier to read using a book holder or book rest.
Book holders are available for purchase in most bookstores and online.
A quiet space to read can help seniors focus on their books.
Find a quiet corner in the home and turn off distractions, such as the radio and television, when reading.
Adding a social element to your reading can encourage you to finish books. Thinking about the book and discussing it with others enhances the mental benefits of reading.
Find local book clubs at libraries and senior centers, or search for an online book group.
You’re more likely to read books that capture your interest.
Search for fiction and nonfiction books about topics you’re passionate about. You can also find many books with older protagonists in a range of genres.
Comfortable reading spot
It’s easier to read for long periods of time if you won’t be in pain from sitting in one position.
Find a comfortable sofa or armchair for reading. Stand assist chairs and recliners are popular with seniors and available through assistive technology suppliers.
Encouraging Reading for Seniors With Dementia
Seniors with dementia often have extra challenges when trying to continue a reading habit. Although they generally retain the ability to read, especially in the early stages of the disease, these seniors are easily fatigued and lose focus quickly. It can also be difficult for them to remember the plot of a longer novel from day to day.
This may make them give up reading. However, research shows that continuing to read can have positive effects on people with dementia. If you have a loved one who’s been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, these tips can help you encourage their reading:
- Read alongside them: Make reading a social activity by reading in the same room or reading out loud to them.
- Write plot notes for easy review: Help your loved one follow the story by noting down the major plot points at the end of each reading session.
- Consider short stories: Find short stories or novellas for them that can be enjoyed in one sitting, so they don’t need to remember an ongoing plot.
- Pick the right material for each stage of the disease: Experts suggest that poetry or familiar proverbs are good choices in the later stages of the disease.
- Make reading materials accessible: Have newspapers and magazines in the home to encourage your loved one to read.
- Choose reading materials wisely: Pick books that feature humor, have clear, large text and include photos that illustrate the story.
There are a number of authors who write books specifically for people with dementia. The Alzheimer’s Association maintains a list of recommended authors.
How Seniors Can Get a Library Card
In the United States, libraries are typically run by city or county governments. This means that the steps for getting a library card can differ slightly depending on your location.
For the most part, getting a library card in person is very simple:
- Visit the library during opening hours.
- Tell the librarian you wish to get a library card.
- Fill in the form the librarian gives you.
- Provide proof of your residential address.
- Receive your library card.
Some libraries may send the card to your address. If this is the case, you’ll usually be provided with a temporary card until the permanent one is ready. Proof of address can be provided through a driver’s license, utility bill or proof of age card.
Many libraries also allow you to sign up online. Depending on the library, this membership may give you access to digital media, including ebooks and audiobooks. Borrowing ebooks is a convenient option for homebound seniors or older adults who don’t drive, so they can have easy access to reading materials. In other systems, an online membership will give you full access to the library’s collection, as long as you’re a resident. Some libraries provide you with a digital card on a mobile phone app that can be used instead of a physical card.
The steps to sign up online differ between locations, but are generally easy to follow:
- Find the website for your library system.
- Look for the link to online signups.
- Fill in the form.
- Provide any proof of residence required.
- Receive a record of your membership number.
- Use your membership number to borrow books.
If your local library doesn’t have online membership or you’re looking for a larger range of books, you can join a library in a different city or state.
Big-city libraries often allow people from around the state to join, as do state libraries. You can also check with your local library for any reciprocal borrowing privileges with other facilities.
In addition, big libraries around the country often have memberships available to nonresidents. However, there’s generally a small cost involved for nonresident members, as they don’t pay local taxes toward maintaining the collection. The following libraries have these programs.
Orange County Library System, Florida
$125 per year
Monroe County Library System
$25 per year
Queens Public Library
$50 per year
Charlotte Mecklenburg Library
$35 per year for people aged 62 or older
Chapel Hill Public Library
$65 per year
Houston Public Library
$40 per year
Fairfax County Public Library
$27 per year