Sunday, October 12, 2014

Building with Blocks - Activities for the Elderly

Every now and then you just have to grab a bucket of blocks and go with it. Last week I did just that. An art activity led by a member of the local Alzheimer's Association had just concluded. I observed most of the seniors were still sitting at the tables where the activity was held and chatting. I had a bean bag tossing game scheduled but on my way to get the bean bags, I passed a tub of blocks that were designed to build cathedrals. I had never used blocks with a group of seniors before, but for whatever reason I knew this was the moment to grab them and go; so I did.

I placed the bucket on the table and started putting handfuls of blocks in front of each of the sitting seniors. Two other seniors nearby saw what I was doing and came over to join in the fun. Soon everyone was making comments about how long it had been since they had used blocks. "I feel like a kid again," one senior commented. Another stated that she had used building blocks that had letters on them when she was a child in the 1920's and that was how she learned to spell words.

After a few minutes what had initially began as just happenstance fun turned into architectural and sculptural design. Elements of spatial and sequential placement was simultaneously in play. Play became an interesting word in regards to describing the movement of their hands as they reached for one block and then another. Soon I was visualizing chess moves.  It brought back memories of my art writing years and stories of Marcel Duchamp and his chess playing as an aesthetic action.

As the number of participants increased, the number of blocks available for each decreased. While another staff member worked with the seniors, I went and retrieved a set of colorful cubes that bore geometric patterns. As soon as I placed these on the table, one of the participating seniors pushed away her wooden blocks and began working with them.

She turned the cubes over and over until she found the side she wanted and was building with. This selective action / decision making added an additional cognitive skill to the block "playing."

After several minutes of concentrated work, she invited me to view what she had constructed. It was her design and it was art.

Another senior wanted to work with the cubes and so they were dismantled and passed on. Soon the senior who had been using the cubes was experimenting with random structures.

The cubes in use by the second senior were repositioned...

And soon a new pattern and construction emerged. She was so pleased by her assemblage.

One of the Tlingit seniors placed her two-three piece "sculptures" inches apart and the placement had such an interesting spatial quality about it that it made you think of sacred sites like Stonehenge in England.

Her pieces were also dialogues on balance and relationships. Minimalist in design while weighted in associative history.

And oh yes, castles where built with fortresses and motes filled with water created by torn blue construction paper.

Battles were imagined and spoken of. Conquest were celebrated as blocks were moved and rearrange.

A third senior asked for the cubes and he pieced together one last assemblage.

It was a great activity. Blocks will be used a little more often at the Bridge. Who knows what they might build next...

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Poetry as an Act Within An Adult Day Center: "It's a great life if we don't weaken." - J.H.

There are moments at the Bridge that hold me still and in that stillness I dwell in the sacredness of what I am bearing witness to. Poetry is alive at the Bridge. Poetry as an act; as spoken words. It is heard most clearly between one activity and another. In the small space between breaking bread and bowling, soft words are spoken and, too, eyes peer out the window panes at the world at large.

Last week, one of our newest attendees, a woman in her mid-nineties, stood at one of the large windows and silently watched snow falling outside. She then asked in a quiet voice, "Does this always happen here?" Not waiting for an answer, she continued, "I have never seen anything like this before. It's wonderful."

This woman, who will turn 100 in 4 years, lived almost her entire life in California. She recently relocated to Alaska to live with her daughter and her family. This winter was the first time she had experienced snow falling on an almost daily basis. It marveled her. She saw such great beauty in what so many here in Alaska think of as common. What resonated with me, while watching her, was how absolutely still she became while she viewed the snow falling. This stillness seamed together with her silent wonder was poetry.

Yesterday, I was sitting with a couple of seniors after our afternoon snack. I could hear two other women, both in their late eighties, talking at the table behind me. One of them was making a statement; a wisdom statement. This woman lived a childhood absent of toys and games. Her family worked picking fruit and harvesting vegetables on farms on the East Coast. She joined them in the field when she was eight years old. Her adult life hasn't been easy either. Yet, she has a strong belief in God and helps others whenever she can.

What I heard her say was this: "It's a great life if we don't weaken. You know what I mean? Do you understand? I'll say it again. It's a great life if we don't weaken. Yeah, because life is hard and you can get tired, but if you don't weaken you will see when you get older how great life really is. So, it's a great life if we don't weaken."

I came home last night, sat down at my kitchen table and said it over and over again as if it was a Buddhist koan or the first line in a prayer I was learning to recite. "It's a great life if we don't weaken."

Today, I invited a senior to work with the Montessori materials who hasn't before, but whom I spied peeking into a few of the small boxes that house some of those materials. First she did wood polishing. She did a wonderful job polishing the wooden cat.

After she was finished wood polishing, I asked her if she wanted to see what was in one of the boxes she has been peeking into. She quickly answered yes.

I brought a small box to the table and explained that it was used to identify singular and plural. I showed her how to lay out the cards and labels. I then asked her to carefully remove one item after another from the box and place each next to their matching label.

She opened the box lid, looked inside and joyfully exclaimed, "Look how small these things are!" She had been upset earlier about an incident she said she couldn't help but think about. It was the suicide of a school friend decades ago. "I cried and cried at his funeral. I just couldn't stop," she told each of the staff, and myself, repeatedly. I had chosen this time to introduce her to the singular and plural language material as a means of shifting her thoughts away from those about her friend's suicide. Too, as I noted above, I had observed that she was interested in the work.

She pulled one baby from the box and gleefully said, "Now this baby makes me happy! And look, there's it's twin." She pulled the second baby from the box and put both next to their matching labels. Then she pulled a very tiny man from the box. I had purchased it and several others like it in Upstate New York from an antique store that specialized in miniatures. "Wow, that is the smallest thing I have ever seen," she said. And then she did it. She held it up against her chest, leaned back and giggled. No, she didn't laugh. She giggled and her face lit up with joy.

I watched her, listened to the sound of her happiness and thought of all the glass blue birds my grandmother kept on windowsills at her home. Sitting there, I heard the poetry of birdsong in the giggle of an 85 year-old woman's voice.

"I heard the laughter. I saw the dancing." - Working with the Elderly

There are days that I wish I could hold out a butterfly net and catch within it the words of wisdom and insight spoken all around me at the Bridge. Instead, I scribble their words on post-it notes and stick them in my pockets until I return to my home in the evening where I unfold them and write what I have heard here.

Today I sat with a woman who will celebrate her hundredth birthday in less than five years. She leaned towards me and said the following:

"I thought I was having problems with my hearing and that I could not hear what was being said all around me. But I could hear all the words of the songs being sung today. You see it wasn't a physical thing. I just had to work on being a better listener. When I am helpful; being a better listener, I help myself. But we don't need to punish ourselves or blame ourselves for doing the wrong thing. We are not better than others, yet we still need not judge ourselves. I am always told I talk to much and I do. So I need to help others by not talking so much and that is helpful to me. 

Being a better listener, I discovered I have not lost my music. You see its a generational thing. My music is for dancing not singing. I dance in my mind and yes, I have been dancing. I heard the laughter. I saw the dancing."

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Creative Writing with Seniors

This is another re-post. This one documents the creative writing workshops I lead with the elderly. I truly hope I have the opportunity to work with seniors again in the near future - Susan Y. Dyer

I don't knit or quilt. I write. That is what I do the most when I am not at work. I have been a member of several writing workshops over the years. The writing prompts and techniques shared in the workshops often followed me into the Primary classroom. Now, my work with seniors includes leading a creative writing group (per my asking if I could please, oh please, do so) every Monday, or so.

Here is what I always remember - "I am not teaching them to write or read. These are not my students. These are seniors who have lived vast and diverse lives. They have much to share. I provide the means, they provide the story, the insight, the selection of words or sentences which they link together, with or without regard to grammar or punctuation. There are no misspelled words or literary errors. I am not correcting their work. I am assisting them, in a variety of ways, to tell what they want to tell."

Here are three things I have observed in regards to the creative writing activities that I have led -

1. ) The "telling" is important to those who will remember that they wrote a poem or a prose piece and those who won't.

2.) I acknowledge that part of this process is edited by my own choices and that no matter how spontaneous or "not present" I try to be, my voice is woven into some of their work. The degree to which it is "woven" in varies enormously.

3.) The (my) focus is on providing each senior with the opportunity to express themselves through written language.

Having stated the above, I want to quote here a few sentences from an article by Ariane Conrad that I was reading this morning in the June 2012 issue of "The Sun" magazine about the artist Ron Ortner. The following is part of a response given by Ortner to one of Conrad's questions -

"...I think art is profoundly and fundamentally life affirming. To make art is to give, to pour yourself into life, so you don't die with the music still inside you."

I see writing as art and it provides individuals of all ages, including the elderly, an opportunity to let the creative voice within to be released and then shared via the page.

Below are some my first field notes on writing with seniors. Too, I have included many of the pieces that were written / constructed by seniors at The Bridge. Also, photos of both the pieces being composed and the pieces themselves are posted.

Let me preface first that I have turned over and over again the pages of "I NEVER TOLD ANYBODY - Teaching Poetry Writing in a Nursing Home," by Kenneth Koch.

I became immediately aware during my first creative writing group for seniors at The Bridge that asking the participants to physically write was not going to result in much writing. All of them could write their names and a few could write several words without pain or becoming tired. However, most had difficulties resulting from arthritis, vision issues and the ability to hold steady the writing tool. Kenneth Cole wrote in the above noted book that he and his assistants/volunteers served as scribes for the seniors that he worked with. I sometimes have one of my assistants available to work with me during the writing workshop, but I am generally on my own. This enables other staff to work one on one with seniors not participating in the writing activity or to engage those individuals who have no interests in participating.

During the week between the first and the second writing group, I spent my lunches and other free times cutting out words and fragments of sentences from a variety of magazines. I chose those that were of a larger size. I also looked for a variety of fonts and colors in my selection.  Yes, my idea was based on magnetic poetry and, too, influenced by an art show I saw years ago at the Walker Art Center in Mpls., Minnesota on Beat Poetry.

A half hour before those interested in joining the writers' group were invited to sit at the designated tables, I went on a hunt in the kitchen for flat trays that I could spread or place all of my cuttings.  I wanted several so that they could be passed up and down the table by participants as one passes dishes of food. This would be a familiar act for them. 

Next, I encouraged each person to pick from the tray 5-10 words or sentence fragments. One or two hesitated stating that they weren't sure what to do, that they had never written poems or stories before and didn't know what they should do or that they weren't good at such things. I went through several words with them and asked, "Do you like this word? Is this something you might say?" After about five minutes they were gluing down those we chose together and their own, independent selections.

The energy in the room was amazing. There was a creative hum. Some were actually humming as they constructed their pieces. That inspired me to continue bringing these materials and to continue the creative writing work itself.

The senior below was very engaged in constructing his composition.

Towards the end of the workshops, I put out markers if participants wanted to embellish their prose pieces or sign them, as the senior did above. You might be able to see that he also gave his piece a title and put the date on it.


When I read the piece above,  I was unsure what word followed which. I asked the writer and she instructed me to put periods at places that she indicated. It made some of the words declamations. That, she said, was her intention. I have also placed numbers in front of words and sentence fragments as guided by a writer to assist in reading it and to also help them remember their initial intention regarding composition.

For the third creative writing group, I repeated the method used the week before. I removed any crinkled pre-cut words from the trays and added new ones. I also added words that had emotional content to them - angry, blues again, happy, etc. As well as sentence fragments that resonated bits and pieces of the stories they have told me during our days together.

One participant, who had been in all of the workshops, immediately started taking words from the trays and placing them on the table in front of her. I could hear her saying, "These go together. This makes a sentence." She moved pieces here and there. Her actions reminded me of the moveable alphabet.  

Their pieces gave voice to their inner voice in ways I could not have anticipated. That was a literary gift to me. I was their first reader. 

I save ten to fifteen minutes at the end of the creative writing workshop to read all of the pieces out loud. I read slowly and emphasized word placement. All of the senior have stated that they enjoyed hearing the writing by their peers. It is truly a powerful segment of the workshop. 

Here are the pieces written during the two creative writing workshops noted above. If a writer was in both workshops, as several were, their pieces are printed one after the other and noted as A1 and A2 or C1 and C2 so that their identity is protected. 


 A 1 -

There's no room for a German mom.
Are you destined to become your mother?
It is a good thing.    

A2 -

America, the beautiful.
Our family real tough
I want to turn over a new leaf. 
You want to be known for being good.
The wonder of...
Blues again
Some people are stuck.
Yes, there is beauty.
Be merry, be bright, be colorful. 
Ways to live well.
And, yes, it's all as
anything for a whole life




I want simple goodness
We thought yes
To their dreams and 
each other
your gentle joy,
good all over. 
Thank you.



You might even say
To make life even
A handful of your heart's desire.
Easier - every day.
Or is it the other



The beauty of your voice
wtih the strawberries.
As it sounds.
Transform your 
Long and Winding Road
You don't have to.
Left behind.
Behind closed doors.
The next.
New Uses for Old Things.



life lesson

What makes me simplify everything.
Experience the new season
coming home to the earth
to enjoy doing nothing
Make autumn fires
The ordinary American spirit
Unlock the secrets of 
Infinite possibilities
Under the sea
What's next



life lessons 
worth trying
something different
simple and classic
the things we make, make us.
It was the start of my new life.


All play and no work makes
a happy girl
life is a mystery
the place where you live is a masterpiece
you could be extraordinary
live for greatness



AND sweet


Made to last 
No one ever says
hello, stranger
who do you want
to be thankful for?
 a little bit longer.


Monday, October 6, 2014

The Montessori Bell Game With The Elderly

This is a re-post of one of my favorite experiences using Montessori materials with the elderly.

Before I introduced the Montessori bell game to the elderly at The Bridge, I thought long and hard about it. I watched how each of the seniors moved from one place to another. Too, I considered the therapeutic use of it. How would a control of movement activity serve a senior population? The term "purposeful movement" returned to my thoughts over and over again. This is exactly what needs to be exercised and sustained in the elderly - control of and purposeful movement. I found a bell that I thought would be perfect for the introductory game when I was going through my Christmas ornaments. The bell was shaped like an Irish cottage with clovers painted on its sides. Beautiful, of a light weight and it had a loop of ribbon on it for holding. It was ideal!

I waited till afternoon snack was over and our population was much smaller. Too, none of the seniors present used walkers.  I went and got the bell from my bag and then invited the seniors to join me for a new activity that used something old. The old was the bell. Before long everyone was seated, including my boss (the man in the plaid shirt above). 

I carefully revealed the Irish cottage bell. I explained that one person would be given the bell and that they would then walk across the room and give it to someone sitting opposite of them. I also said that they were to do it without letting the bell ring. I added that if the bell rang, even if it was when they were handing it to the other person, they would have to return to their seat with the bell and try again.

I was the first to go. I exaggerated my careful movements. I handed it to one of the seniors and returned to my seat. She looked at the bell with all seriousness and said, "I like this bell. I think it would look great on my Christmas tree. I think you should give it to me." She then started laughing, as did the others, and said she was just kidding, but that she did like the bell.

She rose to her feet and hunched over slightly as she held the bell from its ribbon in one of her hands. She moved slowly and with purposeful movement. She took a few more steps and then reached the hand holding the bell out to the one she had chosen to pass it on to. His arm reached out from his seat and the bell was silently transferred to his hand.

It was so deeply moving when their hands briefly touched and their faces lit up with the joy of giving and receiving.

After each person had a turn, we continued for a second, a third and a fourth round. Here the woman in the above photos takes her second turn. She is walking towards a woman sitting a little further from her than the person she chose the first time.

Later, she took a third turn and chose someone even further away.  Her face shows her absolute concentration on the bell and moving without causing it to ring. 

There was something both lighthearted and deeply spiritual when one participant reached out to the other and acknowledged the gift of the bell.

All participated and yes, the bell did ring a few times. These were moments of exquisite joy! Just when you thought that the bell was going to be given without ringing, it rang. And when it did, it startled everyone and all broke out laughing. The bell carrier returned to their seat and tried again a second time. One of the seniors, in a moment of absolute hilarity for all, spanked the bell after it rang and told it to behave. She did so with a generous smile. She then rose and walked the bell across the room, again, without it ringing. She returned to her seat with a look of victory spread across her face.

Another senior carries the bell:

It became like a dance. All of the seniors moved gracefully across the floor. There were moments of absolute silence and there were movements filled with laughter.

There was a trust between the giver and the receiver that bore witness to a deep fellowship.

The bell will be passed again.