As an English major pursuing K–8 teacher certification, reading aloud is second nature to USM student Kacey Foerster ’22. But these days, the people she’s sharing books with aren’t just school kids. They’re residents of a local memory care facility, living with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
What started as a way for Kacey Foerster ’22 to bring moments of connection and happiness to her grandfather has become the focus of formal research on the cognitive effects of reading to people with dementia.
Foerster’s regular reading sessions at a local memory care facility started with a familial connection. When her grandfather had to forgo independent living due to Alzheimer's, Foerster wanted to honor his love of books by reading short stories and picture books to him during visits.
“When I would read, he would become very interested in the book and we were able to share some moments,” she says. “With other activities, such as eating and watching TV, it almost seemed like he was daydreaming. But when we would participate in reading or art or music together, he was always more engaged.”
When her grandfather passed away, Foerster didn’t want the interpersonal connection to end.
“I wanted to bring that joy into others’ lives as well,” she says. “I formed many great relationships with the residents when he lived at the local memory care facility, so those are the folks I started to read to during the pandemic through Zoom.”
Thanks to Melinda Butler, Assistant Professor of Literacy Education at USM, what started as a way to bring moments of connection and happiness to her grandfather has become the focus of formal research on the cognitive effects of reading to people with dementia.
“When I noticed that the reading group participants really liked books with rhymes and bright colors, I reached out to Dr. Butler, for suggestions on children's books,” Foerster explains.
Intrigued by the volunteer reading project, Butler nominated Foerster to receive funding through USM’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), which awards scholarly fellowships so students can design and conduct their own research projects in collaboration with a faculty member. With stipends of $3,000 and additional funding available for supplies, materials, and travel expenses, UROP fellows learn how to design a formal research project, submit a research proposal, create a project budget, manage logistics, and use data management techniques. UROP fellows often participate in regional, national, and international meetings and conferences within their respective disciplines, and their research culminates with presentations at USM’s Annual Research Symposium.
The research project will provide Foerster an opportunity to gain experience with older populations to complement her work with young children, especially those with developmental disabilities. Having served children with learning disabilities since she was in middle school, Foerster now works part-time as a one-on-one support teacher for students with special needs at a Scarborough-based private preschool. After her school-based student teaching internship later this year, Foerster says she looks forward to securing a teaching position locally, with children in grades K through 3.
“I would love to work as an elementary general-ed teacher in an integrated classroom setting, so students of all abilities can learn together,” she says.
Asked why she chose USM for her college experience, Foerster explains that she initially accepted a volleyball scholarship at a private, out-of-state school. But just before graduating from Scarborough High School when she learned her grandfather would need to move into a local memory care facility, she realized staying closer to home would be the better choice.
“The tuition and proximity to home and family sold me,” says Foerster, who has co-captained USM’s varsity volleyball team. “After my tour of campus, I met with my advisor to sign up for classes.”
Foerster also says many important people in her life were rooting for her to become a Husky.
“I had some very positive reinforcements about the decision — my dad, uncle, and grandfather all attended USM as well.”