At the Christopher Heights Assisted Living Residence located at Village Hill in Northampton, for the past three years I’ve had the privilege of substituting intermittently as facilitator of its Creative Writing Workshop, founded by admired local writer and photographer Peggy Gillespie.
Each participant brings a breadth of experiences and memories to the writing table each week. These men and women range in age from mid-70’s to late-90’s. Some have resided at CH for a number of years; others for months or even weeks. We follow the guidelines created by Pat Schneider, the founder of Amherst Writers & Artists; after writing individually, we take turns volunteering to read our “fresh” writing, then comment affirmatively by mentioning what we especially like and/or remember about what we’ve just heard.
It’s a pleasure to watch the confidence these writers gain with every session. One woman who I’ll call Betty entered the meeting room on the first day, pulled her wheelchair up to the table, and announced:
“I shouldn’t even be here since I’m not a writer.”
I decided to cajole her to stay since she’d already made the effort to get there. After Betty read to us her story about summers on her grandfather’s Iowa dairy farm, participants responded with enthusiasm— and curiosity to hear more about that life. The following week, I was delighted when Betty arrived. As pulled her wheelchair up to the same spot, she announced with a glint in her eye:
“I’ve got plenty more stories to tell if you want to hear them.”
Most of all, it’s their grit I find most inspiring about these senior writers. By the time they arrive at Christopher Heights, many have reckoned with debilitating physical challenges, whether due to aging or disease. One writer has no use of the right-side of her body due to a stroke. As I watch the pen in her left-hand fly across her notebook page, I am deeply moved.
Many participants have faced the emotional toll of losing one or more loved ones. All have faced the loss of independent living. Several live with the daily challenges of dementia or a similar cognitive disease.
More than anything, it is their determination to not only survive but to thrive, that I witness with awe and appreciation.