If you think being read to is just good for children, think again. This semester, Eastern Mennonite University students have been spending time reading with residents at Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community. The practice is not only mutually enjoyable but also therapeutic. In the centuries-old practice of bibliotherapy, literature becomes a way to support good mental health and healing through connection to story.
Professor Marti Eads began the EMU program at the start of the fall 2019 semester. Each EMU student is paired with a VMRC resident for weekly one-on-one meetings to dip into literature. But the partners also trade personal stories, wisdom and connection.
“I just met with four of our bibliotherapists and came away feeling energized and grateful. They are enjoying their new friendships and learning a great deal about intergenerational friendship, communication in spite of disability, pain management, and hope,” said Eads.
Interns meet with Eads and also reflect in journal entries. A few excerpts, shared with permission, record how the relationships develop and how the experience benefits both participants.
Upset after a poor performance on an exam, one intern shared her frustrations with her client. In a journal entry later, she wrote,
She made me feel a lot better about it. That interaction right there is why I am truly enjoying this bibliotherapy. Yes, the main objective is that this is used therapeutically for the patient. And I do believe that this is occurring. Maybe it’s just because we are getting to know each other better and are more comfortable with the arrangement, but I really think she is truly enjoying the experience and is bringing a positive impact in her life. But I think that an even larger effect is the one this experience is having on me. Every week, I look forward to this 1 hour block of time that is fully immersed in itself – no strings attached to any other part of my life… Bibliotherapy on Thursdays has become so much more than volunteer hours, patient contact hours – it has become an integral part of my week.
After striking out with an initial selection and a few awkward sessions getting to know one another, another intern connected with her client through a character who had experienced the tragic death of her child. Later, she reflected: Is “the key to aging gracefully” learning to accept the fullness of life’s emotion, in all its joys and sorrows?
Interns include undergraduate biology majors Melissa Kinkaid, of Archbold, Ohio, Caroline Lehman, of Dover, Ohio, and Rachel Musselman, of Denver, Pa.; English major Anali North Martin, of Cary, N.C.; and Claire Reilly, a graduate student in the MS in biomedicine program from Port Republic, Va.
The program is modeled after Clemson University’s bibliotherapy program, which was the subject of a 2019 Suter Science Seminar with Dr. Windsor Westbrook Sherrill, professor of public health sciences and associate vice president for health research at Clemson. Sherrill attended Wake Forest University and studied abroad in England with Eads.
Eads has helped to connect EMU students with VMRC residents before. She taught a spring 2018 global literature course in which 20-somethings and seniors delved into novels and discussed the theme of love and friendship.