The impact of storytelling on patients – Guest blog from InterAct Stroke Support.

Helen Daniels, Development and Community Coordinator from InterAct Stroke Support, shares the impact of storytelling in medical settings, and the intersection of Read for Good’s work with children in hospitals and InterAct’s work with stroke survivors. The charities met at Chiswick Book Festival in 2022, and now collaborate to celebrate #NationalStorytellingWeek2023 (30 Jan – 6 Feb).

In the age of Netflix, TikTok and virtual reality, one can worry that storytelling has the potential to become extinct. However, when someone relays an outrageous tale at the Christmas table, or draws you in with a complex love affair over a cup of coffee, we are instantly reminded that storytelling is a core part of who we are as humans, how we instinctively entertain and, more importantly, how we connect.

Storytelling is what connects Read for Good and InterAct Stroke Support. InterAct Stroke Support is a charity that uses professional actors to read short stories to stroke survivors. A stroke occurs when the blood supply to part of the brain is stopped; without oxygen and a blood supply brain cells can be damaged or die. Depending on where the stroke occurs in the brain, the damage incurred can have different effects. Research in the late twentieth century has shown that many aspects of the brain can be altered throughout adulthood, which is known as ‘neuroplasticity’. Following a stroke, stimulation through reading and conversational interaction encourages the brain to alter, adapt and find new neural pathways to process and understand language and communication. This is known as “adaptive rewiring”. The reading sessions offer post-stroke rehabilitative therapy as they improve stroke survivors’ language recall, boost their memory capacity, stimulate their imagination and improve their overall mood. The InterAct team brings stories to life across the country; currently reading in 19 hospitals, 15 community stroke clubs, and via InterAct at Home, the charity’s virtual reading service. The service prides itself on being available to all who need it, regardless of physical or mental impairment.

After originally meeting at Chiswick Book Festival where both charities were beneficiaries, InterAct were delighted to meet online with the Read for Good team in Autumn 2022. Sharing pandemic experiences, research developments and best practice, we were struck by the similarities the two charities shared. We both recognised how hard it can be for someone not in the hospital setting to understand the huge difference a storytelling session can make to a patient’s day. Storytelling sounds nice, but a Read for Good or InterAct session is so much more than a simple story. It’s a bespoke experience that brings live entertainment, a window into another world, a chance to escape the limitations of the hospital walls and to connect with someone new.

Hospital patients can often experience a conflicting array of emotions. They are desperate to see their loved ones, yet often when family and friends visit the grief and confusion they understandably experience can prove overwhelming. Patients are pleased to see healthcare professionals, yet these visits are commonly associated with being assessed, achieving certain metrics and showing proof of a healthy recovery. Read for Good work specifically with children and young people, and this can be an even more overwhelming experience for someone young, just as it can for someone experiencing symptoms of stroke. The professional readers and storytellers who work for InterAct and Read for Good offer company at a time when hospital patients need it the most. These reading and storytelling services provide a chance for patients to communicate and connect without jargon or judgement, and an opportunity for fun, joy and light. This is a crucial part of any successful recovery.

InterAct has a long-standing relationship with the Newcastle Freeman Hospital. Some years ago, two of our actors, Alison and Zoe, met a gentleman who had recently suffered a stroke. Upon their first interaction this gentleman struggled to remember the names of commonplace items and would often lose the thread of a conversation. His first InterAct reading was the famous Stanley Holloway monologue, ‘The Lion and Albert’, about a boy whose inquisitiveness gets the better of him at the Blackpool Tower Zoo. It was clear that this story transported this gentleman back to the safety and security of his 1940s childhood. During a later visit, Alison noticed something: this gentleman had begun to write down the odd line of poetry, and she implored him to show her more. This encouragement was exactly what the gentleman needed, and he began constructing and writing a plethora of Spike Milligan-style poetry. The InterAct family provided this gentleman with advice, inspiration and support and, after he was discharged from hospital, he self-published a book of ‘Nursery Rhymes for the 21st Century’. InterAct remains in contact with him today.

After this National Storytelling Week, why not try sharing tales with your friends and loved ones, listening to your favourite audiobook, or tuning into a good podcast. Read for Good’s storytellers will continue working with children in hospital, and InterAct Stroke Support’s actors will work with stroke survivors in hospitals, stroke clubs and via InterAct at Home. Together these two charities will use the magic of storytelling to provide vital support to patients during their recovery process. Storytelling is, and remains, a core part of who we are as humans, and how we connect.

Helen Daniels

InterAct Development and Community Co-ordinator

To find out more about InterAct and their brilliant work, please visit their website and social media using the links below:

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To hear Read for Good on InterAct’s podcast, ‘Right Side of The Brain’, follow this link: