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Teacher to Teacher: Writing Groups for Senior Citizens

By Lynne R. Dorfman

Forming a senior citizen writing group is one way to explore the value of writing in the lives of older adults. I taught poetry, memoir, and fiction to seniors in their late sixties, seventies, and eighties at Upper Moreland Township School District for six years. Although some of the writers were physically incapacitated in a variety of ways, by the end of the workshop all were actively writing with enthusiastic involvement and participation. They brought their notebooks and pens, and we provided a light snack and coffee or tea.

Several high school students joined us each time to write, share with seniors, and help the seniors by typing their work on district computers in a nearby learning lab. Many seniors were members of the Key Club, a student-led organization that provides its members with opportunities to perform service, build character, and develop leadership. These high school students often wrote side-by-side with seniors during planning and drafting and shared their writing with us. They proved to be a source of motivation and the seniors were our source of inspiration.

The act of writing and the interaction within the group led to a sense of richness and value in the writers’ own lives. Participants often continued writing at home because they wanted to practice and share their work with peers. Initial writing included descriptions, observations, and poetry. Then we moved to our treasured stories – memories of childhood and young adulthood, memories of good times and bad times. This writing led them to want to write more to gain an understanding of their lives and share with others. Finally, the writing selected by the seniors was compiled into an anthology each year and distributed to the seniors. High school volunteers also submitted one piece to add to the collection. The school district graciously paid for publishing costs.

In the last year of our project, we met for a total of twelve Saturday morning sessions from 9 to 11. Teachers brought refreshments and ideas for writing minilessons to get everyone started. Seniors had technology assistance from our staff and devoted high school students as well as our building principal who was present for every session. Dr. Milrod, our school district superintendent, also joined us to write and inspire.  My husband supplied us with pictures and video clips. It was sad to see it all come to an end.

I strongly believe that writing contributes to our sense of better self-worth as well as to our social involvement with others.  In fact, we should try to develop life-writing courses for recreational centers for senior citizens. This type of writing could be biographical, anecdotal, and expressive modes of discourse. Key themes in this writing often include identity, the good old days, friendships forged, progress, humor, nature, religion, and family history. Motivating factors include general social benefits, opportunities for individuals to tell personal stories, opportunities to improve as writers and to read others’ work, and suggestions on how to become more aware of their own lives, thoughts, and writing processes.

Today, we could also consider meeting virtually with seniors through a Zoom platform, for example. Teachers could also contribute videos of some of their favorite writing lessons to be viewed by seniors in the comfort of their homes. Virtual writing groups for seniors is a real possibility for the next school year. In senior citizen living centers, shared spaces such as a dining hall are not being used right now due to the pandemic. Seniors cannot have visits from friends and relatives. A virtual senior writing group can provide a way for seniors to safely collaborate and ultimately be able to share their stories with loved ones.

The importance of community writing opportunities for older writers who may not have other means to connect with others through writing, as well as the entertainment and motivational impact of an anthology developed by seniors cannot be overstated. Projects that interview senior writers as to how best to support and encourage writing in their lives might be a good starting point for a study conducted by high school students with some support from staff.

Writing Groups for Senior Citizens

– 3 to 6 Saturdays

– need to provide a light snack

– model some memoirs: write a story about a certain time in their lives

– model poetry formats and fiction writing

– create an anthology of senior writing

Things that need to be done

  • Develop a flyer.
  • Decide who will be invited – maybe a nearby senior living center – seniors citizens need to be able to use a computer for Zoom meetings.
  • Come up with dates – maybe start with three or four so no one feels intimidated.
  • Recruit some high school students and teachers to help with typing up stories. Seniors who have difficulty typing can snail mail their stories to one or two educators who can be responsible for delivering to households of high school students or scanning and sending the stories as email attachments.
  • Contact people in charge of the Rotary Club, Key Club, local Alpha Delta Kappa chapters, high school publications, reading councils, etc. to see if they would like to feature several stories, poems, or memoirs by senior citizens in their community and/or help with publishing costs.

A bit of guidance goes a long way to start the group members off on their writing journeys.  Encourage them to tell their version of the stories of their lives. Then, get ready to hear some incredible stories — both joyful and heartbreaking.

 

Lynne R. Dorfman is a 1989 fellow. She is a member of the West Chester Writing Project advisory board and serves as an adjunct professor at Arcadia University. Lynne enjoys her work as a co-editor for PAReads Journal of KSLA and is current president of KSLA Brandywine Valley Forge, her local reading council. Lynne is a member of Eta chapter of Alpha Delta Kappa and ADK state historian.

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