Monday Blog: Literary Projects with Older Adults

| by Gemma Seltzer

How can creative writing be used to enhance the lives of older adults? Gemma Seltzer's project 'Writers Meet Elders' researches creative writing and ageing, finding ways of using literature to make 'a quiet intervention in the landscape'. Read this blog to find out about some of the best literature projects with older adults.

In Yorkshire Sculpture Park, there are a series of exposed tree roots on the ground. They’re almost hidden by the fallen leaves where you walk. Fine, that’s expected. We’re outside after all. But on closer inspection, you notice the bark catches the light in a curious way. There’s something unusual here, but it is subtle. Speed Breakers, the roots of a fallen beech tree cast in bronze, is a piece of art by Hemali Bhuta. It’s a quiet intervention in the landscape, encouraging you to pause before moving ahead.

The idea of quiet intervention is at the heart of many of the best literature projects with older adults and about the experience of ageing. 

Alzheimer's Poetry Project
Gary Glazner runs the lively Alzheimer’s Poetry Project in day and residential care environments in Brooklyn and across the world. The aim is to encourage creativity in those experiencing memory loss. He uses a call and response method to share classic poems, songs and anecdotes. Following this, the group contributes words and phrases to make a new poem. Glazner then performs the co-created piece, adding music and hand actions. For an hour or so, the room fizzes with energy. Poetry, an artform which distils the human experience, becomes the conduit for individuals to express themselves. People connect with each other. Emotions rise, memories evoked. The workshop ends. The place settles down. The lunch trolley rolls in and life continues.

Echo Part 1 - A Neurological Soundscape
Quiet intervention is also present in Echo Part 1–A Neurological Soundscape, by Jane Baker, an Australian sound artist. The piece depicts the experiences of an 85-year old with dementia. Through headphones, audiences journey through the woman's memories as she remembers her husband. His words return again and again in the recording, but never stay. Alongside this, footsteps, clatter, birdsong, pill bottles, and strange voices appear. The work explores the disjointed and isolating experience of living with dementia. It is about how memories form, how as we age we find comfort in the familiar and hold onto poignant moments. It is impossible to step into someone else’s shoes. Yet the piece suggests the complexity of living with dementia. The constant variations in mood and tone. The shifts between anxiety and the calm. At the end of the piece, nothing in your surroundings changed. But in some ways it feels as though everything has.

The Reader Organisation
A group sits together, each with a printed copy of the same short story. With a gentle voice, a woman with glasses reads from her sheet. The woman lifts her head from time to time, to let the words hover in the air for a moment before continuing. She reads a tale of two little girls and their doll’s house. Everyone listens, occasionally agreeing, shifting in their chairs, or closing their eyes. The Reader Organisation has perfected the model of shared reading, bringing great writing to a wide audience. For older adults living with dementia or experiencing social isolation, reading together increases well-being. This regular activity offers a safe space for opinions to be heard. It feeds imaginations, it sustains people throughout the week.

Older Women Rock!
Poetry embroidered, painted and printed onto vintage dresses and clothes. Lines engraved onto jewellery. Words performed on film. These are some of the elements of Leah Thorn’s Older Women Rock! project, based on her experience of ageing and conversations with other women her age. Thorn, a poet in her late 60s, spent 2015 working with women in prisons, in Zumba classes and day centres, exchanging stories of ageism and sexism as well as how they all subverted stereotypes in their creativity and resilience. Instead of publishing the women’s words in a book, Older Women Rock! poems will slip along high street windows and displayed on clothes within a pop-up shop in Folkestone. Another intervention that causes people slow down for a moment, to look again, to contemplate their assumptions.

Meet Me at the Albany
Entelechy Arts runs Meet Me at the Albany in London, bringing together local over 60s for a day of creativity each week. The founder, David Slater, describes the atmosphere as like a shared dream. It’s a meeting point for local older adults. A place they’re just as likely to be drinking a cup of tea as sculpting, learning circus skills, and singing. During the day, writers such as Simon Mole support the creativity of the older adults present. Mole chats with individuals and, separately, with a group, gathering their ideas into a co-created poem using emceeing, rapping and spoken word as tools. It’s all about making a creative personal connection, he says. There is a vibrancy to this kind of work: live writing and editing offers inclusive and entertaining results. And much like the other projects, the day ends it but leaves its mark on everyone present.

Gemma Seltzer, Writers Meet Elders
I’m using the same notion of an intervention that creates a shift in perspective for a new endeavour of my own. It’s a creative befriending scheme, linking writers to older adults living alone. In the pilot project, I'm undertaking one-to-one visits, offering an intimate space for shared creativity.  We talk. We look through books. We read classic and contemporary published writing. We use our words, photographs and objects to create a story or a poem together. By combining creativity and befriending, this project offers participants a unique chance to meet new people, and explore their own imagination in the comfort of their own home.

These are just a few projects that enhance the creative potential of those in later life or offer a new perspective on the process of ageing. Activities that benefit and engage writers and older adults as audiences, artists, collaborators and participants. Good literature, when written or read or shared together, can offer something much like those bronze roots. A quiet power both fleeting and also incredibly profound.

Read more about blog author Gemma Seltzer's work with older adults at Writers Meet Elders, supported by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust and undertaken in partnership with Age UK Bromley & Greenwich. 

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