March 5, 2014 § 3 Comments
Panelists: David Robson, Nancy McCurry, Paul Pat, Lloyd Noonan
As a teacher of therapeutic and wellness writing workshops, primarily in the cancer and domestic violence populations, I’d been thinking about expanding my practice into the world of the elderly. But every time I moved toward that community, something made me stop, as though my gait froze up like a Parkinson’s patient. Then, when I attended this panel at AWP 2014, I understood what my problem was.
The panelists discussed the various challenges a teacher might encounter when working with this older population: poor hearing and vision, limited mobility, cognitive impairment, vanishing memory, fear of computers, crippled hands, intolerance of others, and overall poor health to the point that workshop participants might very well drop dead in the middle of a writing series. While these challenges might be enough to frighten away many a teacher, these weren’t the problem for me–not exactly, anyway.
The panelists also offered a variety of interesting formats for senior citizen workshops. Lloyd Noonan gives his students exercises ranging from current events to grammar lessons. Paul Pat assigns profiling projects wherein the older student researches and tells the story of another person and, in so doing, enters into a new world. Nancy McCurry, who lives in Phoenix “where we grow old people,” prompts her students with simple nouns and verbs that represent every day life: from bells to utility bills to bananas. And David Robson relies on curiosity and inference, encouraging his students to observe others, whether in historical photographs or real life. All of the approaches used by the panelists were creative and innovative, and my notebook quickly filled up with ideas to add to my own arsenal of lesson plans. But, the thing is, a lack of teaching ideas was not the reason I’d been dragging my feet to the old folks’ homes.
It was when Lloyd said he first sought out teaching seniors as an opportunity that something clicked for me. He admitted that he’d been afraid of old people, as though they were demons, and by teaching them he learned to see them in an entirely different light. Nancy beamed about how much she had learned from her senior students. Paul’s all-time favorite student was Bonnie, an older student who used creative writing as a path to reinvent herself. And David pointed out that creative writing was a fantastic “alternative means to activate and engage seniors and bring out the best in them.”
Eureka! Even with an elderly mother in an assisted living home, I had failed to see the older population as people who still want to re-invent themselves. For some reason I’d assumed that, once you reach a certain age, you’re done growing and changing. You might watch Wheel of Fortune or play Bunko or listen to the news on TV, but you aren’t still trying to make sense of the world.
How incredibly wrong, and foolish, I’ve been. I’d failed to remember that Alice Munro and Toni Morrison and Tom Wolfe were still writing well into their elderly years, still making observations about life. And I hadn’t made the connection between them and the average elderly man or woman when, as we all know, you don’t have to be a Pulitzer Prize winner or a New York Times bestseller to have something to say.
My view of the senior world was like an old sock with a hole in it: functional but flawed. I don’t like to wear socks with holes, so I didn’t want to shuffle into the senior world unprepared. But now, thanks to this panel — and the enthusiastic audience as well — I’m ready to go. In fact, I’m anxious to go, to meet with them and learn from them and give them the opportunity to affirm their lives, their beliefs, and their hopes through writing.
G. Elizabeth Kretchmer is a Seattle-based fiction, freelance, and essay writer. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, High Desert Journal, Silk Road Review, and numerous other publications. Her debut novel, The Damnable Legacy of A Minister’s Wife, will be forthcoming shortly.