Writing as Lifeline

Simple accommodations help older students discover hidden talents

Thank you to COMPAS Teaching Artist Jon Lurie, our guest blogger this week. We asked him to write about his joyful experience leading a writing group with older adults at Masonic Home in Bloomington, MN. As one participant of this COMPAS program says, "Remembering has been such good medicine.”

COMPAS teaching artist jon lurie, gathering ideas for his next writing class

COMPAS teaching artist jon lurie, gathering ideas for his next writing class

Sally labored at the wheels of her chair as she rolled into the Masonic Home’s activity room, pulling up to the conference table, around which I sat with a group of ten residents. She looked pleased when I introduced myself as a memoir writer from COMPAS, and talked about weekly meetings where we would write and discuss writing. There would—I playfully warned—be homework. 

Sally, who I guessed to be around 80 years old, sat at the far end of the table from me, and before long looked tired, distant, sad, and lonely. When it came time for her to introduced herself, she perked-up and talked about her daughter, her lifelong passion for painting, and her Swedish ancestors, about whom she wanted to write.

When I told Sally I hoped she’d bring some of her paintings to share, she smiled and nodded but didn’t respond verbally. I realized she couldn’t hear a word I said. Five minutes after her introduction, melancholy had returned to Sally’s face.

Over the past weeks I’ve gotten to know Sally very well. She is no different from many older people—a vibrant, wise, sensitive human being who has difficulty interfacing socially due to physical and/or emotional limitations. As a writing teacher, it would be easy to become frustrated teaching a tableful of older students, some of whom are dealing with the aftereffects of stroke and can’t hold a pen; are blind or nearly so; have diseases which make fine motor skills, like writing or typing, difficult or impossible; are missing entire decades from their memories.

In Sally’s case, as in every case, there was a solution which allowed her to become a full participant in class.

At the second session I saved the space directly across the table from where I sat for Sally. The proximity would make it likelier she could hear me, and it would help that she could watch my expressions and read my lips. The solutions are often simple but require the teacher to work with each participant, and to expect writing out of all participants.

In order for everyone to thrive in writing class, simple accommodations often make a big difference.  Some students might need the help of a volunteer or family member to write down their stories. Others, such as those with memory issues, can benefit from access to research materials which can aid them in piecing together disparate recollections. Others, such as those who have endured the humiliations that can accompany ageing, might need someone to listen to them, and treat them with respect.

Sally has grown over the past weeks as a writer. With each new piece her recollections and abilities to crystalize them into words and phrases improves.  She has discovered that she not only likes writing, but that she’s very good at it. It has been exciting to watch her spin into the room and take her place at the table, where she spends the entire two-hour class engaged—laughing, sharing, critiquing, and sometimes crying.

After class last week Sally stayed behind to speak with me. She said she feels writing is healing her mind. “I’m remembering things I’d forgotten years and years ago,” she said. “I feel like myself again. Remembering has been such good medicine.”

COMPAS' Artful Aging programs offer a wide range of creative opportunities for adults 55+.