“I’m not running a therapy group, but many say this is very therapeutic,” says Lisa Conger, a certified poetry therapist, and an instructor with the Institute of Extended Learning in Spokane. Conger teaches a writer’s workshop for seniors, as well as a poetry workshop. For seniors engaged in writing, whether it’s their own memoirs, poetry or fiction, the classes provide an opportunity to hone their craft, and much more.
Seniors who record their life stories offer unique glimpses into a lifetime’s worth of experiences, says Sarah Conover, a Spokane author who also teaches an IEL writer’s workshop for seniors. “They want their history recorded. They are part of a time that is gone, lost. Many of them grew up on farms and have rich memories of harvest time, of their mothers cooking for 20 people, and strong, strong ties to the land. I can’t tell a story like that.”
The act of unloading thoughts and memories — sometimes painful ones — onto paper can also help promote personal growth and healing. At a time in life when losses and regrets may be starting to pile up, Conger says, self-expression can be surprisingly beneficial. She cites a study in which subjects wrote for 20 minutes a day, for five days in a row, about a troubling issue.
“By the fifth day, they come to a new understanding or resolve about the issue. There is something that happens that engages healing when people express especially painful things.”
The IEL writing groups meet weekly, and to spur creativity, both teachers often provide a prompt, but unlike in elementary school, students in the classes are free to follow their creative impulses. “If I give them a prompt and it doesn’t appeal to them, they should just write what needs to be written,” says Conger.
Sometimes she does advocate using a more formal style, however. “A lot of poetry that has a structure can be helpful to people who are suffering grief or a loss, because it gives you something to hang that grief on.”
The benefits of writing are expanded when it is done as part of a group. “The magic that happens is partly from the fact that they inspire each other — hearing each other gives them the idea of different possibilities, of different ways to approach something,” says Conger. And she finds the student-writers begin to communicate on a much deeper level with their classmates than they may in other facets of their lives.
“In our society, we don’t really have a chance to share our more intimate self. In a sense, some of these groups develop a kind of intimacy, because they are sharing stories from their past. It is almost a sacred thing.”
For all the painful memories and experiences shared in the groups, Conover says her classes are often filled with laughter among people who believe they are perhaps living the best part of their lives. In writing their stories, Conover says, “They want to show how to do your golden years well.”