How seniors can improve their health and happiness by reading


To my senior friends: reading is good for you. Books aren’t just entertaining; they’re also great for your health.

Since I turned to writing for a living a few years ago, I’ve discovered something quite wonderful about reading lots of books.  

It made me smarter. Believe me.

This might not sound like much of a revelation, but I’m convinced I’m sharper now than I was 5 or even 10 years ago. How could this be? I’ve been a reader for over 60 years, so what made the difference?

Doing research has led to a change in my reading habits. I’ve gone beyond a lifelong preference for literary fiction and turned to a wider variety of written material. It’s changed the way I think about things and fostered an urge to dig deeper.

The important point in my experience is this — on a daily basis I’ve been learning new things. Acquiring new knowledge is cognitively stimulating. That means I’m making my brain better.

Reading is a daily activity that’s become part of both my work day and my leisure time. It’s really paying off.

Research tells us we strengthen our brain connectivity, sharpen our reading comprehension, and improve our retention when we read. All of this spells better brain health, which means we may be able to slow our cognitive decline. Music to seniors’ ears.

Here’s what else reading can do. It keeps us engaged and less apt to feel down or lonely. It’s also a good stress reducer — according to one study it’s as effective as yoga in this way.

Good books provide an invitation to rest and let our minds go to another place. For seniors they’re like a visit from an old friend that easily transports us to a comfortable place of familiarity. Anyone who’s interested in history can find a fascinating array of writings that bring hidden chapters of the past to life and broaden our understanding of it.

I’ve read some excellent books over the past few months and want to share some of my favorite titles with you. 




What seniors should read to improve their health

Read whatever holds your attention. Let yourself get engrossed in a good story. You might love good fiction. For a change of pace consider journalistic accounts like investigative reporting.

When you immerse yourself in a book, whether it’s the printed page or an audiobook, your brain is stimulated. You’ll find yourself visualizing aspects of the story or empathizing with the characters. Your mind will strive to remember actions and bits of dialogue as it follows the story and makes sense of it.

Your brain processes what you’re reading. That means it’s making connections and strengthening its networks.

To get the most benefit from your reading, plan to make it a daily activity. Think of it as exercise you can do from the comfort of your couch. You’ll soon realize its positive health impact and want to make it a habit.


A list of good books and why you should read them


Here’s a nice selection of fiction, non-fiction, and memoirs to get you started. Each of these represents a personal favorite from the many books I’ve had the privilege to read this year.


The Night Watchman — Louise Erdrich (2020)


What it’s about: Erdrich based this fictional account on her real-life grandfather, a Chippewa tribal chairman who also worked as a night watchman in the 1950’s. It’s the story of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and their struggle to fight against the U.S. Government’s effort to dissolve nation-to-nation treaties made with American Indian nations. The story involves community spirit, family love and obligation, and a touch of magical realism.

Why you should read it: The attempted abrogation of the treaty is a significant part of recent Native American history in this country. Erdrich is a master storyteller and has a gift for character development. The reader is drawn immediately into the little community of fascinating people. The author doesn’t shy away from the issues of poverty, domestic violence, alcoholism, and unemployment faced by the people in her book, but the story focuses on the determination and devotion of two main characters to achieve their goals — bringing a lost family member home and protecting the tribe’s livelihood. Moments of humor, fear, determination, and celebration make this a must-read. When you finish you might hope the author writes another story about these people.

You can read more about Louise Erdrich here.

Hamnet — Maggie O’Farrell (2020)

What it’s about: Hamnet is about the bubonic plague in 16th-century England. It’s an imagined account of William Shakespeare’s young adulthood and the death of his young son, which seems to have served as the inspiration for his most celebrated play, Hamlet. The author captures intricate details of the hardships of Renaissance life, which almost feel like another character in the story. The tale is less about Shakespeare himself — he remains unnamed throughout the book — and more about his unconventional wife who is a healer and free spirit.

Why you should read it: It’s a beautifully crafted story, timeless in its portrayal of maternal love and grief. O’Farrell’s writing is lyrical and emotional. Historical novels can be fascinating reading, and Hamnet is among the best I’ve ever read.

Read more about Maggie O’Farrell here.




A Long Bright Future: Happiness, Health, and Financial Security in an Age of Increased Longevity — Laura Carstensen, Ph.D. (2009)

What it’s about: Carstensen’s opening paragraph speaks volumes. “Those of us living today have been handed a remarkable gift with no strings attached: an extra thirty years of life for the average person. Now that gift is forcing us to answer a uniquely twenty-first-century question: What are we going to do with super-sized lives?” Her book goes on to discuss the positive aspects of aging and what those who study human longevity are learning about it. We’re living longer, healthier lives but are also experiencing shortfalls in our healthcare and social security systems. She includes a simple framework for ensuring a long, bright future with a heavy emphasis on planning and nurturing social relationships.

Why you should read it: This is on my list of must-reads for caregivers, seniors, and adults nearing retirement age. It’s hopeful, informative, and entertaining. It might also motivate you to contact your elected representatives and remind them to pay attention to senior concerns.

Read more about Laura Carstensen here.

Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019 — edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain (2021)

What it’s about: Editor Kendi describes this compilation of history as the effort of a community — he calls it a communal diary. The community that makes up African America, or Black America, was born of the 20 Ndongo, West African people who landed at Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. Eighty Black writers have each chronicled a five-year segment of history over a 400-year period. They write from a variety of perspectives that characterizes, in Kendi’s words, the community of difference that has defined Black America.

Why you should read it: These are short, very readable essays of history that you haven’t read in other history books. You should read the collection because it speaks to the importance of the ongoing systemic racism that is problematic in our country. Each essay provides insight that enables our understanding of 400 years of struggle.




The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother — James McBride (1996).

What it’s about: Told from two first-person viewpoints, it’s the story of James McBride’s mother, a Polish Orthodox Jew who emigrated to the U.S. with her parents at the age of two. She fled her abusive father, a rabbi, and married an African-American Christian man in the early 1940’s — an era when such unions were frowned upon and often dangerous. Twice widowed, she was left in poverty, raised 12 children, and endured both religious and racial discrimination throughout her life. Yet she faced life on her own terms and experienced joy and hardship beyond her years.

Why you should read it: This memoir spent two years on the New York Times bestseller list for good reason and continues to be widely read 25 years later. This non-fiction piece reads like a novel, and McBride masterfully captures his mother’s narrative along with his own. It’s an important take on religious, social, and racial issues that are relevant nearly 100 years after Ruth McBride Jordan’s arrival in America.

Read more about James McBride here and Ruth McBride Jordan here.

Olive, Mabel & Me: Life and Adventures with Two Very Good Dogs — Andrew Cotter (2020)

What it’s about: This memoir is a love story between a man and his dogs. Cotter is a Scottish sports commentator whose work was idled by the pandemic in 2020. He began making videos of his two Labrador retrievers and narrating them, clips that have been an internet favorite for the past year. The author’s account of living with Olive and Mabel and hiking through Scotland with them makes for terrific listening.

Why you should listen to it: It’s a wonderful book, but this one is best if you hear him narrate it. Cotter’s enchanting Scottish brogue combined with his dry sense of humor make it a real delight. You’ll laugh out loud.

Read more about Andrew Cotter here and watch my favorite Olive & Mabel video here.

Options for reading and listening to these books


Every title I’ve included is available through both the King County and Seattle Public Library systems. All are also available for e-readers like Kindle, and in audiobook form.

If you are interested in audiobooks, you have some good options, including one that’s free of charge for library members.

  • You might choose to subscribe to an audiobook service. The most popular is Audible, which is part of Amazon. You pay a monthly fee for the service, and you can keep your selections. Find out about other services here, along with pro and con comparisons for each of them.
  • If you want to borrow audiobook titles, just as you do hardbound books, you can do so free of charge through your library. You’ll need to install an app called OverDrive on your electronic device and know your library card number.
    • Find information here on audiobooks offered through King County Library. You’ll also learn more about the OverDrive app as well.
    • Learn about Seattle Public Library’s digital resources here, including audiobooks using OverDrive or Libby.

A quick note on using audiobooks. Books narrated by the author provide a wonderful way to hear stories just as the writer intended. Listening to audiobooks can be a way for seniors to combat loneliness because the experience is like having someone read to you, usually in a voice that becomes familiar and comforting as the story goes on.


At SeaCare, we promote healthy options for the families we serve. King County has a reputation for being a well-read place, and we encourage you to find joy and stimulation in good books. Contact us for information about how we can support your caregiving needs.


Katie Wright writes about aging and senior wellness from Bellingham, WA. You can read more about her here.




If you or a loved one you know are looking for additional support during this time and are interested in scheduling a free in-home assessment, please contact SeaCare In-Home Care Services today! A SeaCare family member is standing by. 425-559-4339