Creative writing and the elderly

Since 1999 the project ‘Pedagogy and the Elderly’ at the Hordaland County Library has arranged twelve courses on creative writing for elderly people in Bergen and Hordaland. More than 100 participants between the ages of 59 and 95 have received training in writing poetry, narratives, short stories and talks. Through its courses the project has given many older people living at home and in institutions a new and positive experience, producing in the process a number of excellent texts.

The project ‘Pedagogy and the Elderly’ was initiated in the autumn of 1998 by four teachers and a university lecturer in pedagogy. The project arose from the surprising realisation that there was no pedagogic initiative directed at the elderly in the community.Why does society fail to make use of the resources, experience and talents possessed by the older generation? Care of the aged and communal services for the elderly are generally restricted to their physical needs, but surely they have other needs which deserve attention.

We have no wish to criticise the health personnel who do an excellent job taking care of old people, but there is no denying that they have been trained to concentrate on problems, on symptoms, on the illnesses of the aged and to do their best to cure them. They do not necessarily see the underlying causes. The word ‘health’ shares the same roots as ‘hale’ and ‘whole’, and health care among old people must relate to the whole person. In addition to tackling physical problems, there is a need to foster talent and to encourage potential.

Why creativity?
Our special interest in old people and literature made us wish to stimulate their creative powers. But why should elderly people do this at all? The Danish author, Per Højholt, has said that art is of no more use than our sense of smell. On the basis of reason alone, it is perhaps not necessary in order to live, but it increases our awareness of the fact that we are indeed alive. To quote the pedagogue, Inge Eidsvåg, “Poetry reveals the very mystery that we are alive. It strengthens our experience of living”. The poet, Helge Torvund, has the following to say:

“To be enthused by language or a painting, to marvel at the countless wonders that surround us and the mysteries within ourselves, this is an awareness which, like falling in love, creates a renewed joy of being alive”

One of our course participants, Brita, a resident at the Bergen Red Cross Nursing Home, says, “My writing brings me closer to the person I once was”. Poetry does more than reinforce our happiness at being alive. It can also liberate us. Many philosophers have pointed out the strong link between language and thought. They are inextricably bound together. Using everyday words to describe something important in our lives may often prove difficult, whereas the language of poetry offers an alternative means of expression.

At the second course in Bergen Jenny had written on the subject of ‘one particular day’. She begins by describing how she and her two sons aged three and five sat one morning listening to the children’s hour on the radio and how afterwards they spread out a map of the world and used their toy boats to trace the route of their father at sea. The story ends with the following words:

“I was well pleased with the day, it was bedtime. The two children were asleep, tired after a busy day. The wind had dropped, the fjord lay dark and calm. Everything breathed peace. It was spring. There was no running water in the house and I went out to the well. I heard slow, hesitant steps coming along the path and the shadow of a man approached. I was frightened and put down the bucket, wondering who it could possibly be. I stood quite still as he came nearer.

“Don’t be scared,” said a calm voice. “It’s me, the parish priest.” He had been rowed across the fjord. It was late but he had waited to make sure that the children were asleep. I was paralysed, unable to move. He took me by the arm and led me back into the house. We sat down and in a calm voice he told me that Kåre, my husband, had died early that morning in an accident on board his boat. It was difficult for me to realise what this meant for me and my sons. They had lost their father. That day changed my life for ever.”

This text gives us a moving insight into the history of one person’s life. I doubt the effect would have been the same, if we had asked Jenny to speak about her life. Instead Jenny had been set a concrete task to write about one particular day and she had sat down and chosen to describe the day she lost her husband. The scene is clear before us.We are with Jenny as she hears the ominous words, “Don’t be scared. It’s me, the parish priest.” The poetic language puts us in touch with Jenny’s feelings at that very moment.We experience the enormous contrast of the idyllic opening with what is to come. We are aware of small omens in the text echoed in the descriptions of nature.

Poetic language presents the world in a different and perhaps more direct way than other means of expression. Kari, a participant on the writing course in Bergen, tells us that after starting the course she became more aware of details around here, insignificant things previously unnoticed but now material for poetry. Poetry is not necessarily strong emotions and beautiful sunsets. Poetry can also praise the small moments of everyday life. Sitting in her flat one grey, autumn day Kari wrote the following poem entitled An everyday view.

A puddle
In the lane
has an improbable
It has captured
a ray of sunshine
(Kari K)

Poetry is for everyone
The poetic spark is latent in all human beings and not confined to the professionally talented writer. Some of our participants have always known the pleasure of putting thoughts into words, but many have written nothing since leaving school.We have seen, however, that the ability lies dormant and often requires only somebody to recognise it or to offer a word of encouragement. This outside stimulus is vital. Older people need to be asked and be given the urge to write. They also need a public.

Past, present and future
When we begin a course in writing, it is often useful to turn to the past as a starting point, since many of the participants have a desire and a need to write down the thoughts and happenings of a long life. After a while, however, we find that they write as much about the present as about the past. It should be appreciated that elderly people are no less interested in the present than the past and encouraging them to dwell on their memories can create a false perspective. Hopes, dreams and strong emotions do not disappear with age. We also experience during the course that some participants look ahead with optimism to the future, while others write philosophically about a future where they no longer will exist.

The sun shines
on a golden carpet
of fallen leaves.
They cover a summer
now gone to sleep.
When I fall asleep,
cover me too
with a golden carpet
the sun can shine upon.
(Kari K)

Not simply a matter of text
Just as important as the written product is what happens in between the words.Many participants find that they get to know each other in a special way. The normal everyday talk about curtains or the neighbours gives way to conversations about life, art and philosophy. They experience previously unknown aspects of themselves and of others. Many find a new self-confidence and a belief in their own abilities. At the end of the course they proudly read aloud their own work, usually for the first time.We have even experienced that some of the participants have been invited to read their writings at cultural events, on the radio, etc. Not only do they acquire a greater faith in their own abilities but we can also see a clear improvement in their powers of expression and in the quality of their writing.

Initially it was not intended that the course should have any therapeutic aims but we now appreciate that working with texts in a secure group environment can indeed be a form of therapy. Creative language can be used to convey thoughts and experiences which one would perhaps not dare to express in everyday speech.Many course participants have confirmed that writing has been a help to them. The Danish author, Jytte Borberg, once said, “art reveals a secret without giving it away”. Perhaps this is what we observe when a course participant comes to us with a text reflecting strong emotions.We do not expect or encourage anyone to come forward with moving and traumatic stories, but we see that dramatic events tend to take over during the act of writing. Participants find that they can reveal themselves without giving everything away. The course can also have a therapeutic effect by the writing involved removing the focus from sad and painful experiences. One woman found that she no longer suffered from her normal winter depression, while Solveig in a nursing home claimed several times that the course kept her out of the grave, since she had so much left unwritten.

Creativity and institutions for the elderly and infirm
While participants in the course for elderly people in their own homes created their own written texts, we found that many of those living in institutions were unable to write. In this situation we suggested topics such as ‘friendship’, ‘romance in the old days’, ‘moving into an institution’ etc. where each participant contributed one line or verse to a shared text. On other occasions participants have ‘written’ their piece by telling us their thoughts in response to the suggested theme. The following text is a result of the latter method and shows that although the ability to write may have been lost, it is still possible to express one’s thoughts.

The colour of old age
When we boys were young, we said,
“Look at that old man there!”
Now in spite of difficulties
I find old age as blue
as the sky
and full of hope. (Ewald)

Increased interest in library services
From a library point of view it is encouraging to see an increased interest among course participants in libraries and their services. As previously mentioned, most of them had written very little since leaving school and very few spent any time reading. After the course, however, many have returned to the library to borrow books and several have found a new interest in literature – not only the reading itself but also to observe the language and the way the author uses it. Some have even started to read modern poetry, a genre they would never before have dreamed of approaching.

Project organisation and the future The project has been funded by the county of Hordaland through the county library and the Internet gateway ‘Kulturnett Hordaland’. Working at the county library, I have acted as project manager since its inception in 1999, although the majority of courses have been arranged in several different libraries throughout the county.

In addition to the courses on writing, the project has run several programmes for new course organisers. In Bergen there are regular lectures for student nurses on the subject of creativity in the care of the aged and we are represented in the Nordic network for pedagogy among the elderly which has organised three Nordic congresses. The next congress will take place in Denmark in the spring of 2005.

In 2003 we published a book Pedagogy and verbal creativity among the elderly, which gives an insight into our writing courses and a working plan for those thinking of starting similar initiatives.

We hope that our work with elderly people and creative writing will be taken up and further developed elsewhere in Norway and throughout the Nordic countries. These courses show the possibilities of language in many ways, playful and serious, profound and reflective, as exercise for the mind and as comfort for the soul. They also prove that it is never too late. As the Norwegian poet, Maria Takvam, wrote:

Suddenly the worn face
became that of a child.
Suddenly wisdom
turned to wonderment.
Suddenly knowledge
gave way to doubt..
The poem touched her wrinkled skin
And made her young

Translated by Eric Deverill Portrait by Elin Golten

Project manager, Pedagogy for the Elderly, Hordaland County Library.