Saturday, October 20, 2012

Creative Writing with Seniors 4 - Long Term Memory vs Short Term

Individuals living with dementia and Alzheimer's have much better recall of their long term memory than their short term. They repeat stories from decades earlier over and over again. A senior recalling her first date with the man she was then married to for 38 years may not recognize him when he visits her later that afternoon.

And of course, not all memories are pleasant memories. Counseling engaged in decades earlier and the positive aftermath of those therapeutic sessions may all be erased from the memory of a senior with dementia or Alzheimer's. What may still be recalled are the emotions and the trauma of the original events or acts.

I recently attended a class on dementia care. One of the other attendees, who works at a home for the elderly, spoke about a senior who was frightened by "someone" outside looking in her window. That "someone" was her own reflection in the glass. As much as the staff tried to reassure her that there was no one there, the senior would not return to her room until memory of the incident faded (about 2 hours). Her personal history included being the victim of domestic violence by a male partner prior to her decades long marriage. Before she began living with dementia, she may have felt that she had "come to terms" with the violence she experienced in this relationship. Post-dementia, the past is the present.

During the last creative writing workshop I led, one of the seniors, who has participated in all of the writing workshops, immediately picked an image from those offered. She held the picture in her hand and declared, "That was like me when I was a child working in the fields. It was so hot out there picking vegetables. Our shoulders burned under the sun. Once they forgot to bring us water, all day! Yeah, that was me. It is illegal now, you know Susan. It's illegal to have children work out in the fields and not go to school." The picture was of a blonde haired child holding tomatoes in her hands:

My assistant sat down next to her and started to suggest some positive and uplifting words from the cutting piles for her to use in her writing. She pushed them all away. "Look at that picture. That was me. That wasn't good or happy or beautiful. I hated my childhood. I did. I hated it."

I came over to where she was sitting and started placing near her the words that I thought might articulate the emotions of her now present memory of that time in her childhood. "See, Susan knows me. These are the words I want to use. I want to say what I feel and to tell the truth about it. It was horrible. I didn't have any dolls or toys. I never had any friends. I started working in the fields when I was 8 years old."

I handed her a glue stick and invited her to construct a prose piece that spoke of her history and in words that did not beautify or sentimentalize the experience. She completed her piece with an expression of satisfaction on her face. "It's done. I wrote it. I wrote what I think and that's that!"

Growing season
The season for memories
Here's the sweet truth
I have a story to tell
Strong and crazy
No child's play
Goodbye to all that, again
I hated my childhood
Thank God 
It's over with 

While it was great that she expressed these memories openly, her story did cause a few of the other seniors to become a little restless. They finished their pieces quickly and moved over to the sitting chairs with their coffee cups in hand. I have been thinking of working with the above senior on her creative writing in a one-on-one setting next time. However, I hesitate isolating her from her peers when she wants to talk about her life history.

A friend of mine recommended a phone App that I did download. It is called "Dragon Dictation" and it instantly translates the spoken word into the written word. This could allow me to have her tell her story via this dictation tool and I could record it, again, in a one-on-one setting. The App can save the dictation in a word doc or email it.  I remain undecided.

As a writer, I embrace every individuals right to express themselves. As an individual working in a community setting, I hesitate promoting the expression of one individual if it causes disruption or disengagement by the larger population. Yet, what remains significant is that the writing is being done. While the seniors may not remember writing prose, the pieces, themselves, preserve their history.

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