Novel way to keep minds ag­ile

These se­niors join the book club so they could en­gage in lively dis­cus­sions.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Senior - By JOHN HANC

ON A blus­tery Fri­day after­noon in late April, a fire warms the spa­cious Queen Mary Room of the Atria on Roslyn Har­bor, N.Y., a se­nior re­tire­ment com­mu­nity. A cir­cle of easy chairs is drawn around a table laden with fruit and cook­ies.

It’s the per­fect set­ting for curl­ing up with a good book. But the 12 women gath­ered around aren’t here for quiet time. These Atria res­i­dents have as­sem­bled to dis­cuss, de­bate, and dis­sect a chal­leng­ing and provoca­tive work of lit­er­ary fic­tion.

Lynda Aron leads writ­ing and read­ing groups in li­braries, se­nior cit­i­zen fa­cil­i­ties and pri­vate or­gan­i­sa­tions through­out Long Is­land and Man­hat­tan. For the first two years, the fo­cus at the Atria was mem­oir writ­ing.

“As they got older,” she says, “they felt that they’d told all their own sto­ries. Now they wanted to dis­cuss other peo­ple’s sto­ries.”

Ac­cord­ing to a 2015 sur­vey of book club mem­bers by BookBrowse, an on­line mag­a­zine for li­brar­i­ans and book en­thu­si­asts, par­tic­i­pa­tion in­creases with age, and one of the pri­mary rea­sons cited for in­volve­ment is a de­sire to con­nect with oth­ers.

That seems to hold true for mem­bers of the Atria book club.

“We have lively dis­cus­sions and there’s a lot of give and take,” says res­i­dent Leah Brochstein, who is 95 and en­joys be­ing able to ex­press her­self.

“If I have some­thing to say, I say it,” says Brochstein who worked as a le­gal sec­re­tary for many years. On this after­noon, Brochstein is not the only one to voice an opin­ion about April’s read­ing se­lec­tion, Cam­ron Wright’s ac­claimed 2012 novel, The Rent Col­lec­tor, about a poor Cam­bo­dian fam­ily ek­ing out a liv­ing in a mu­nic­i­pal waste dump.

The club mem­bers vote on which book to read, based on se­lec­tions sug­gested by Aron, and pre­fer to stay con­nected with con­tem­po­rary trends in lit­er­a­ture. Their re­cent picks have in­cluded ti­tles by Yoko Ogawa (The House­keeper and the Pro­fes­sor ), Amos Oz (A Tale of Love and Dark­ness), Lau­ren Groff (Fates and Furies) and El­iz­a­beth Strout (Olive Kit­teridge and My Name Is Lucy Bar­ton.)

“Some of the ti­tles they’ve cho­sen are pretty saucy,” Aron says. “Noth­ing shocks them ... These are ac­com­plished women ... We have for­mer psy­chol­o­gists, ed­i­tors, ex­ec­u­tives.”

To­day’s group in­cludes women who are 91, 92, 93, 95, and 97; the rest, Aron jokes, are “young chicks” in their 80s. They’ve all brought their copy of the book – some in print form, oth­ers on Kin­dles or iPads. A com­mon thread among them: They em­braced read­ing at an early age, and many be­longed to book clubs when they were much younger.

Caro­line Lesser, who is 93, re­calls the first books she loved as a girl. “The Book of Knowl­edge,” she says, re­fer­ring to the pop­u­lar chil­dren’s en­cy­clo­pe­dia. “I read the en­tire sec­tion on Greek mythol­ogy. I loved it, and soon I was read­ing any­thing I could get my hands on.”

Rita Licht­en­stein, 89, a re­tired clin­i­cal social worker says she loves to read and en­joys the social dy­nam­ics of the book club.

“So many of the books have been wonderful to read and to dis­cuss,” she says. “And even when they’re ones we don’t all want to read, we still want to dis­cuss them.”

That in­ter­ac­tion is one of the ma­jor ben­e­fits of an ac­tiv­ity such as this, says Uni­ver­sity of Illi­nois psy­chol­o­gist Wendy Rogers, who spe­cialises in se­niors.

“There’s a lot of ev­i­dence that social en­gage­ment is a pre­dic­tor of health out­comes and even mor­tal­ity among older adults,” she says. “Hav­ing this kind of social en­gage­ment that’s high qual­ity ... en­gag­ing, in­ter­ac­tive, com­mon goal-ori­ented ... is re­ally powerful.”

The qual­ity of dis­course in the Atria’s book club, Rogers says, ex­em­pli­fies what re­searchers have learned: “Ver­bal abil­ity is well main­tained into old age,” she says. “Peo­ple have a mis­con­cep­tion that ev­ery­thing de­clines with age. I think this group high­lights the fact that that’s not true.”

Such en­gage­ment isn’t ex­clu­sive to dis­cus­sions of lit­er­a­ture, Rogers says. “It could be a book club, gar­den­ing club, knit­ting cir­cle, some­thing that has that social com­po­nent.”

Ex­ec­u­tive coach Mar­garet Moore, co-di­rec­tor of the In­sti­tute of Coach­ing at McLean Hos­pi­tal, an af­fil­i­ate of Har­vard Med­i­cal School, says, “This is a great way to keep learn­ing. There is also a sense of pur­pose de­rived from help­ing your friends cul­ti­vate and main­tain ag­ile minds.”

At the Atria, Aron starts the dis­cus­sion by ask­ing the mem­bers what they thought of the story, which re­volves around a poor, il­lit­er­ate Cam­bo­dian mother who is be­ing taught to read by a stern woman, who also col­lects the rent on the young mother’s hovel. The rent col­lec­tor is a for­mer teacher, and some of the Cam­bo­dian folk tales the mother learns to read are wo­ven into the story.

“I thought it was very well writ­ten,” says Francine Sch­nei­der, 91. “I ap­pre­ci­ated the way the au­thor in­te­grated fa­bles in the story.”

“Yes,” Aron responds. “We all love lit­er­a­ture, and lit­er­a­ture was almost a char­ac­ter in this novel, wasn’t it?”

Vig­or­ous nods as the con­ver­sa­tion turns to the de­plorable liv­ing con­di­tions of the char­ac­ters, who still main­tained their dig­nity and hon­our.

“It was sad,” one of the club mem­bers says. “But it was also beau­ti­ful.”

“It was a faster, eas­ier read than some of the books we’ve dis­cussed,” says an­other. “But the au­thor said many pro­found things.”

Again, mur­murs of agree­ment, and dis­cus­sion about the mes­sages in the book. Is there no­bil­ity in poverty? All agree that one of the most poignant scenes is when the main char­ac­ters re­turn to the dump from a trip to find their ram­shackle home has been ran­sacked. They have noth­ing but the clothes on their backs, but the rest of the com­mu­nity rises to sup­port them.

“That book was all about heart,” Brochstein tells the group.

Aron responds, “It was heart-wrench­ing.” The book ends with the young Cam­bo­dian mother choos­ing to live at the dump when given a choice of whether to re­main there; a de­ci­sion that helps Aron move the dis­cus­sion along.

“Why do you think she would stay?” Aron asks.

“It’s hu­man na­ture to hope,” says one mem­ber.

“It’s like the ex­pres­sion ‘There’s al­ways hope’,” says an­other.

“Be­cause every­body loves a happy end­ing,” says yet an­other.

Aron latches on to that. “Why do we love a happy end­ing?” she asks. Some answers are spe­cific (“Be­cause we like feel­ing good”), but those re­marks prompt com­ments that come in a free-as­so­ci­a­tion flow.

“Like in La La Land,” ob­serves one mem­ber, re­fer­ring to the Academy Award­win­ning mu­si­cal. This leads to a brief di­gres­sion to the mer­its of that film.

Then some­one men­tions that The Rent Col­lec­tor was based on River of Vic­tory ,a doc­u­men­tary film made by the au­thor’s son. One woman says that she had vis­ited Cam­bo­dia with her hus­band years ago, and while a beau­ti­ful coun­try, she saw ev­i­dence of the level of ex­treme poverty de­picted in the book.

There is brief si­lence as the women con­tem­plate this and are re­minded of the homes where they lived be­fore mov­ing to the Atria. Some say they would rather re­turn to their own homes, but add that they ap­pre­ci­ate the ac­tiv­i­ties avail­able to them at their cur­rent res­i­dence. The book club is one of their favourites.

“It makes liv­ing here eas­ier,” Licht­en­stein says.


(From left) Lesser, Aron and Sch­nei­der look for­ward to their book club gath­er­ings as they get to en­gage with each other and dis­cuss what they have read.

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