Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Creative Writing with Seniors 3

I have much to write tonight, even though I am incredibly tired. Yet, there is something so important about capturing one's thoughts / reflections on the day before retiring to bed. It's almost 9 pm and I have just made a fresh pot of coffee. Still, what I want to write about is less about the writing that was composed today, although I will include that, and more about insights I have gained regarding preparing materials for the writing group, about language and content chosen collectively by the participants and the staff and, finally, moving from poetry to memoir, or more specifically documenting and collecting oral histories.  Yes, I have much to write. However, give me a moment as I need to pour my first cup.

O.K., I am back. Sauteed some mushrooms to go with the coffee, first though. Awakening my senses so as to return to the emotions stirred by some of the writing composed a few hours ago by seniors at The Bridge.

I used the same format that I have the last two writing activities. I cut words and sentences for the participants to put together so as to create poems or prose pieces. I also invited each of the seniors to select an image from two trays of pictures I cut earlier in the day and last night at home. Last week, image choices were made quickly. This week, it took several minutes.

I had twenty images that I chose based on the autobiographical history of the participants. I included a funny, cute picture of a petite dog on the chance it might interest someone. It did. I was surprised by who that was. It was chosen by the only male senior at The Bridge. I knew he had spent much of his life on a boat as a commercial fisherman, so I had cut out several pictures of boats, fish and of the ocean. He looked at them for a moment and then reached out for the picture of the dog saying, "Fiddo." I was just pleased he did in fact pick a picture.

However, a rooster picture that I had chosen due to a story one of the participants often repeats was immediately selected by her. But, in both cases, the pieces composed did not respond to or describe the pictures these participants decided upon.  Here are both:

(this was written by the man that chose the "Fiddo" picture)

Beauty, the amazing race.
Sweet dreams without worry.
A handful of no regrets
Mature hopefulness. 
Lost and found. Doing without. 
Behold the power of yourself. Rest easy.
Become yourself. Get grounded. 

(this was written by the woman who chose the rooster picture)

Women & time want
Sweet hereafter.
Your daughter wants 
for life. 
Some of the richest people in 
the world do not have money.
Slow down your life. 

Another participant did not pick a picture initially, but later became briefly upset that everyone had one and she did not. She was then again offered some to chose from and did. Individuals with dementia do not always recall choices that they made. The timeline of recollection varies dramatically not only in regards to individuals, but also with individuals, themselves.  In the afternoon, a senior with dementia may remember what happened that morning but not what happened fifteen minutes ago. But another afternoon, it may be the opposite. With this participant we do not  say, "You didn't pick one Dear. That is why you don't have one." Instead, I discretely placed several near her paper. When she became slightly upset that she didn't have one, she was guided to those near her and simply, as if the first time, invited to use one of those. Her piece follows.

You can where there is hope
Imagine beyond the golden gate.
The tree of life 
for those who believe -
someone to hold on to.
I still do believe and
all is real.

What truly engaged me with this piece is what she wrote in her own handwriting at the bottom:

Regarding image selection, there was yet another situation that arose as participants began to select pictures and that weaved through the entire activity. Fortunately, this individual was not sitting at the table occupied by most of the participants. Instead, she was sitting at a second table and being assisted by another staff member.

In an effort to be budget minded, I used cookie sheets and cutting boards from The Bridge's kitchen to place the cut-out words and pictures on. This is what the situation noted in the above paragraph revolved around. One of the participants in the writing activity approached me as I directed others to pick a photo/image from those I had put out. She looked at me with concern in her eyes and said, "These are my cooking trays and I am not sure where you got them or who said you could use them. Did you talk to my daughter? Did she give you permission to go in my kitchen and get them? How did they get here? I must say it is quite upsetting that all my things are being used like this."

This participant has advanced dementia. The trays and boards are not hers. She does not know that. She believes that they are hers. I told her that they were in the kitchen (I didn't say which kitchen) and that I needed something large to place the pictures and words on. "Well, you think you would have asked. I have given a lot to this place and would have said yes to you using them if you had asked. Well, I guess it's too late now. Just, next time please ask Dear. That's all I want." When she finished speaking, I simply smiled and answered, "That doesn't seem like a big request. I will."

She returned to the table that she was sitting at and started to work again on her composition. She did not make much progress. The other participant at her table told her to just relax and enjoy herself. She answered with the following, "It's just so upsetting to see my cookie sheets used this way." She did not piece together a prose piece or a poem. She said she would take the words home and work on it later. The other staff person went and got her a manila envelope and put her words in it for her to do as she wished.

Later, after all of the participants went home, the other staff person and myself discussed this participants behavior. We decided that I would make some felt boards for next week and that I would place the materials for the participants to use on these and no longer use any of the cookie sheets or cutting boards. I reported a similar, yet less dramatic, incident that had happened the week earlier with a participant asking for food once they were seated at the tables to do creative writing. The tables used were the same used for eating lunch and snack. I am working on either moving the activity to the backroom tables or getting new tablecloths that would only be used for this activity and would, perhaps, denote the activity as a non-food one.

Each of the two incidents point to the need for appropriate material usage. The Montessori lingo for this is that lead guides are never to use materials with lessons that are psychologically inappropriate. An example given during my training was of a two-sided dog dish used for transferring water or spooning in the classroom. Using the dog dish this way sets up the possibility that the child will try to repeat the activity with a dog dish in his home and then be chastised by an adult for doing so. It is psychologically inappropriate to present materials which may result in an individual experiencing "failure." Failure in that their conduct would be considered deviant in the home setting.

Using a turkey baster to transfer water was another example given. A turkey baster is for basting turkeys and therefore the turkey would be hot.  A child might reach for the baster and be burned if he is given a lesson in the classroom that teaches misuse of the tool.

This well seasoned teacher, that being myself, forfeited her Montessori training when she chose the cookie trays and cutting board to display material choices. Yet, it has mobilized me to make the changes needed asap. I will stay within budget and find all that I need. All teachers know that creed.

Wait break...second cup of coffee needed.

Hmmm....alright, what next. Oh yeah, language and content chosen by the participant and staff, collectively. I walk around and chose lines of verse from trays and place them here and there on the table so as to spotlight them for participants during the entire activity. Some are picked up and used. Others are not. This is very much a writing workshop technique.

A couple of the weekly participants in the writing activity went to school up to the eighth grade. Their language skills are in relation to the education that they have had, like all of us. "Big words" and / or metaphorical writing is/are not familiar to them. When I am cutting out words, I never limit myself to selecting words that might fit an educational criteria. I just cut words and phrases that stand out to me, probably more for their size, color and font style than for the actual word/s itself.

Today, one of the participants with limited education chose a picture of the sea to write about. When she was going through a pile of words and sentence fragments, she came across, "the life aquatic." She picked it up and asked me, "What does this mean?" I explained that it had to do with the water. "Oh, that works with my picture then because my picture is of the water. That's perfect. I love it." She glued it in place. But before it was completely glued down, the woman sitting across from her asked her, "Do you even know what aquatic means?" She answered, "Yeah, she told me. It means life in the water. I like it."  Here is her piece:

Solo journey.
Steps and stones. 
Let your story unfold...
The life aquatic.
The place where you live.
Dive in. 
There are no rules.
Ok, the truth is that this woman probably would never use the word "aquatic." But, today it came across her table and she asked for it's definition and then decided it was a perfect fix. I keep a running list of words I read in books that I am unfamiliar with or do not know their definition. After I look them up, I often use them in my own writing. So she liked the word, came to know what it meant and then deemed it a fit for her composition. It's good...all good.

Well, actually it isn't all good. Actually, let me put this more accurately. It isn't all love and roses that the participants write about. This is what I was hoping for, to tell the truth. I was hoping that some of the prose pieces would include the emotions of fear, loss and grief.  Today, a participant couldn't find all the words he sought to express himself. He glued down a few and then dictated others to me. The narrative voice was dualistic in nature. It voiced both fear and hope. Here is his prose piece:

My life is starting to make sense
Weekend fire and grit
Let the music scare you.
Let it enlighten you. 
Cat Stevens wasn't celibate.
Let the music move you. 
The best summer.
Lucky 7
Cave of dreams helped me.

Attempting to write down a participant's oral history is particularly challenging while running a large group activity. I did engaged several times with a participant attempting to record a time in her life when she worked at a fish cannery. She glued two pictures onto her paper and a couple of cut out words. But, she wanted to write a longish, prose piece and wanted me to spell several of the words she wanted to write. There would have been no problem doing this if I wasn't working with several other seniors at the same time. I ultimately wrote a few sentences for her, but decided that I needed to respond to the needs of all the participants and so re-encouraged her to find cut-out words to express herself. She did chose a couple  more. Her story remains incomplete, but her words do create a scene that the reader can fill in. I will also invite her to sit with me, one on one, tomorrow and see if these few lines draw back the memories that she wanted to write about today. Her dementia is not advanced and so she should be able to recall her cannery days again, with some prompting. Here is what she wrote today:

The simple pleasures.
Travel to the cannery
so we can work on fish. 
The raven.
Where the birds are.
The boat
To Tenakee,
to different canneries.
Clean, cut up and put 
the fish in cans.
Cook them, too.
The same boat
took us there
to different canneries. 
for the fish. 


I have much to revise and work on before next week's creative writing activity. Well, I am fading fast. Science with Seniors is tomorrow afternoon. I have just enough time before bed to cut wine corks into fourths for my planned activity. I hope. No! The coffee pot is empty!


Jo said...

I read these posts with tears in my eyes. Early in my career I worked part time in pre school settings where children we engadged and educated and well cared for. Inspired by my late mother in laws work as a activity orgnizer in a day center for elderly people I applied to work in an old peoples home. It was not what I expected the dear people sat around all day, often alone in their rooms, my time was filled with feeding, dressing, toileting them which I tried my upmost to do in a way which respected their dignity and supported them to do as much as they could or wanted to for themselfs, however their was no time to sit around and chat, read to or entertain them, nor was there anyone whose job was to do this. So I discoverd I could sing with or to them as I cleaned the rooms (another part of my job)and this brought some enjoyment to the dear people, esspeally old hynms. I came accross this blog as I am now a homeschooling mother intrested in motissori, but it was wonderfull to read of the wonderfull work you are doing, your insight and skill, My mother in law would have loved this blog as she was reaching for something similar as she developed activities that would engage people with dementia. I am so glad for the work you do, may God bless it.

Susan Y. Dyer said...


Thank you for sharing your story. I can hear you singing hymns now. What sweet joy those songs brought them. You are a dear heart. Thank you for sending me blessings. Your kindness is warmly received. God bless.

Susan Dyer
The Moveable Alphabet