Supporting literacy for seniors

Digital library in residents’ good books

By Drew Tapley

At Altamont Care Community in Toronto, the majority of residents are bilingual with English as their second language. Several of them are active members of the book club.

Until recently, they have struggled to find books in their native languages to connect them to their cultural heritage. Now that’s all changed thanks to a new digital reading project for seniors offered through Family Councils Ontario (FCO) and e-book retailer Kobo.

Alyson Gillian is the new digital librarian and co-president of the family council at Altamont, which is owned by Sienna Senior Living. She submitted a successful application for the care community to become one of six in Ontario participating in the second phase of the project. She is supported at Altamont by Nancy de Vera, the Director of Resident Programs, and Saira Haq, the Resident Relations Coordinator.

“Access to reading materials in languages of origin expand the availability of literacy support for seniors,” said Saira. “Some of the residents revert back to their mother tongue, and I think this has to do with dementia and Alzheimer’s. As you get older, your short-term memory dissipates and your long-term memory retains, so people actually revert back to their childhood and books they loved to read.”

One resident at the care community speaks English for about two hours in the morning, and Greek for the rest of the day.

This is the first time that Kobo has partnered with the long-term care sector, and through the FCO has gifted Altamont with its Aura H20 e-readers, free book credits and instant access to a vast digital library that includes hundreds of free e-books. This has allowed residents to discover and read books in their own languages, which they didn’t have access to with the paper library. They can now re-read books they once read as a child, connecting them to their youth and aiding a vital bridge in the process of memory care.

“We are one of the more multicultural homes in Sienna,” said Nancy, who recognizes that a lot of residents will be reading a book on a screen for the first time. But as yet, she hasn’t had anyone say that it isn’t for them.

The book club is now both print and digital, and meets every week to discuss which titles they would like to download. They even weeded out some of their lesser-used print books and sold them off at a quarter a piece, raising $120 for the club to invest in the digital library.

Every resident can get a rotation of an e-reader and sign it out for a week at a time. All the devices are connected, so when a resident requests a book, it is purchased on a computer and automatically added to each one. Once they have finished a title, the exact percentage read can be confirmed on the device and added to a metrics report.

Altamont Care Community Resident Kumar with his degree certificate and graduation photo.

Kumar is an 85-year-old resident from Sri Lanka, and uses the new digital library. He is a strong believer in lifelong learning, and earned his degree at the age of 70. Another resident, Bert, was born in Austria in 1933 and stores his personal library of 1,500 books at his son’s house. Bert has read all his life, and thinks it’s important for seniors to continue to read and enlarge their knowledge in later life. He is currently halfway through an e-book.

“I like how you can touch it and it turns the pages,” he said. “When I read a heavy book in bed, my arms would get tired. But this is fantastic.”

The e-readers also allow residents with vision difficulties to fully participate through adjustable text, whereas before they would have to order books in large print. They are lightweight, shatterproof, and manageable in size for seniors to operate.

Samantha Peck is Director of Communications & Education at FCO. She was involved in the selection of participants for the project based on the strength of their teams, established relationships, and the commitment to carry out the project successfully. There are 630 long-term care communities in Ontario, and about 80 percent of them have an active family council.

“It’s not so much a challenge around literacy in long-term care, but a challenge around appropriate literature for people with a cognitive impairment,” she says. “What we are hearing and why I think the project is so valuable, is around access to literature in other languages. As people progress through Alzheimer’s and dementia, they often lose that second language. Being able to easily access something in a language the person still understands can make a huge difference to their quality of life.”

Saira Haq, and Nancy de Vera with members of the book club at Atlamont Care Community.

She is collecting qualitative and quantitative feedback from participants to provide a clearer picture of whether this is something that works well in long-term care.

The project was launched at Altamont in January, and runs through June. After this, Nancy is hoping they can run their own research project around literacy in long-term care.

“Cognitive ability among people with dementia is really pivotal in allowing them to exercise their brain,” she said. “Reading is one way that recreation can assist them to keep using that function in their brain that connects them with their previous life and where they are right now. It only enhances their quality of life when we are able to provide resources like this.”

Drew Tapley is a writer for Sienna Senior Living. For more information visit