Published: December 4, 2022
Reviewed by: Deidre Sommerer, LPN, MS, CMC, CDP

For many seniors, retirement brings plenty of joy. Time spent not working can instead be spent focusing on moments with friends and family, as well as on learning new skills and engaging in favorite hobbies. Some seniors might see their golden years as an opportunity to travel, while others might look forward to relaxing and reading more often. Those who choose to spend more time reading are likely to see the vast benefits that come with taking time to read each day.

Cognitive decline is a relatively common issue among seniors. In fact, among American adults aged 70 and over, approximately 66% experience some level of decline in their cognitive abilities. One way to combat cognitive decline is by keeping the mind active through reading and engaging in other mentally stimulating activities, as well as by socializing and exercising. 

Studies on the benefits of reading in the latter years of life have continually shown that reading can significantly improve memory and episodic recall, as well as fluency. One study published by Frontiers in Psychology indicates that those who engage in regular reading have an advantage over those who read casually or don’t read books at all when it comes to cognitive awareness. Additional research has also shown that reading books regularly can actually reduce stress, help improve sleep and even increase life expectancy.

This guide provides an overview of the vast benefits of reading for seniors and the role libraries across the nation play in helping seniors reap those benefits. It also includes tips for encouraging seniors to read more often. 

How Libraries Can Help Seniors

Seniors who enjoy reading and want to explore new ways to enjoy this hobby can benefit from visiting their local library. In addition to giving seniors free or low-cost access to nearly endless reading options, they’re also a great place to socialize with other seniors and take advantage of free programs, such as classes and book clubs. 

The Top Benefits of Reading for Older Adults

Reading is a great way to enhance the quality of life for seniors, and best of all, the benefits of regular reading later in life are abundant. Below, we discuss the top benefits of reading in greater detail.

Enhanced Memory Function

Most seniors experience some level of memory decline as they age, but reading for several minutes every day can actually help slow the progression of memory loss. Seniors who are living with cognitive disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease, might find that reading helps preserve some short-term memory while still in the early stages of their diagnoses.

Maintain and Improve Cognitive Function

Analytical skills may be vastly improved with regular reading, a benefit that could prove beneficial for seniors at risk of cognitive decline. Studies have shown that seniors who read every day can not only maintain, but even improve their cognitive function.

Increased Empathy

As seniors get older, empathy is a trait that may tend to fade. Older adults may have a reduced level of cognitive empathy, which is the ability to understand the way others think and feel. With regular reading, seniors may be able to improve their empathy. This is particularly true when reading stories about the lives of others, such as biographies and first-person fiction.

Better Sleep

A UK study conducted and published by the University of Sussex determined that reading, regardless of the style or topic, can improve sleep substantially. In fact, as many as 68% of those involved in the study reported better sleep when opting for a book in the minutes and hours before bedtime.

Improved Focus

Many seniors who are living with cognitive decline struggle to concentrate, but regularly engaging in activities that stimulate the brain can help. That’s where reading comes in. Daily reading is a good way to develop concentration skills and repair concentration that may have worsened as a result of neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s.

Reduced Stress and Anxiety

The significance of reading for stress and anxiety can’t be discounted. Seniors who regularly sit down to read a book are less likely to feel anxious and stressed, feelings that are particularly common in those entering long-term care or facing critical health diagnoses.

Delayed Onset of Dementia

A study published in JAMA Neurology that included nearly 2,000 healthy adults aged 70 and older suggested that those who regularly read and do other mentally stimulating activities  faced a lower risk of memory impairment disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease.

How to Help Seniors Become Avid Readers

Unless a person has spent their life enjoying books, it can be difficult to start a healthy reading routine. However, with some encouragement from loved ones and caregivers, reading can be appealing to even the most hesitant senior. 

Here are a few ways to help seniors become more enthusiastic about reading every day:

  • Find large-print books: Many seniors struggle to read because of vision problems. While some can make do with reading glasses, others experience severe strain while trying to make out the small print and, as a result, might avoid reading books and other materials. Thankfully, bestsellers and many other books are available in large-print format, which is made specifically for those with visual impairments.
  • Purchase an e-reader: Seniors who are comfortable with technology or who have a caregiver to help them learn may prefer reading on an e-reader, especially if it includes a built-in light and adjustable font sizes. These screens can make it easier for those with visual impairments to read, and e-readers can help those who aren’t able to visit the library or bookstore often to access new books from the comfort of their own homes.
  • Suggest audiobooks: Seniors who aren’t excited about reading can still enjoy the same stories and information as those who enjoy books. Audiobooks offer a great way to engage in stories and keep the mind active without the need to actually sit and hold or read a book. Seniors can enjoy audiobooks while exercising, driving or engaging in other hobbies, or they can simply listen to them as they fall asleep at night to unwind and relax. 
  • Provide a magnifying tool and/or book light: Visual problems are one of the biggest reasons seniors may have an aversion to reading books. Some might struggle with the size of the print, even with large-print books, while others might have a hard time with clarity. Using a magnifying tool, a book light or a combination of both may help those who struggle to see enjoy books more comfortably.
  • Offer books targeted at seniors or special-interest stories: Sometimes older adults don’t read because the books they find just don’t seem interesting to them. By helping your loved one find a book that’s targeted to their age group or involves something they’re interested in, you’re more likely to get them excited about reading.
    Locate a book club: Sometimes having someone else engage in an activity with you is all it takes to get past a bit of hesitation, and seniors are no different. If your loved one is anxious about taking up a new hobby or not showing any interest in reading, suggest they enroll in a book club and either go along with them or help them find a friend to join in.

Once you get your loved one interested in reading, the benefits they experience should encourage them to continue. However, if they seem to lose interest, try to determine what’s deterring them from enjoying books and offer solutions to help them get past it. 

How to Get a Library Card

There are plenty of ways you can help your loved one access more books with libraries, regardless of where in America you live.

If a senior is able to visit a library in person, take them to their local library to request a library card. Most will provide one free of charge, while others charge a small one-time or annual fee. In many cases, a library card also offers access to free learning opportunities, clubs and other programs that keep seniors and other library members engaged in learning. 

Seniors who are housebound or cannot attend their local library in person for other reasons might want to consider digital library cards, which are available in most cities across the United States. These offer unlimited access to e-books, magazines and other resources that seniors can enjoy from home. The Digital Public Library of America also offers an array of free e-books and online exhibitions that seniors can enjoy.