Painting with Words –
Creative Writing with Older Adults
by Debbie Hommel, ACC/MC/EDU, CTRS
Putting words to paper creates a monument to thoughts and feelings. Written words can be used to communicate, express, define, and explain what is going on in our heads at a given time. Often, our first experience with writing is in the academic setting where we learn spelling, grammar and perfect sentence structure. The essay was the dreaded assignment for most students. As unenjoyable these English composition lessons might have been, they prepared us for the potential to use the written word in another fashion – creatively.

Creative writing is any form of writing which is not based in academics, professional or journalistic formats. Creative writing is considered any form of original composition. This may include autobiographies, novels, short stories and poetry. The practice of journaling and internet blogging is a popular creative writing practice which many enjoy.
Introducing creative writing with elders in our care facilities can become another therapeutic approach if we introduce various techniques as therapeutic writing or writing therapy. Journaling is a common suggestion from a therapist when an individual may be going through a difficult time or dealing with trauma. The writing of thoughts and feelings can act as a catharsis, relieve stress and improve mood. In order to use writing as true therapy, one should pursue specific training in the area. There are a few avenues to pursue such as an Expressive Writing Therapist, an Expressive Therapist or a Certified Poetry Therapist.

The activity professional can introduce creative writing exercises with great success and benefits. Writing individually or together can enhance working memory, improve mood and positive outlook, develop social skills as well as relieve stress and anxiety. The use of the written word, whether by listening and reflecting or creating – can be implemented in a similar fashion as a reminiscent group. Selecting topics and writing prompts related to the seasons and holidays create additional opportunities for discussion and reminiscence.

Here are some ideas for facilitating a creative writing group. All these tasks can be done individually, giving the elder a pen and paper or it can be a collaborative effort with everyone sharing their thoughts and the group leader writing them on a white board.
-Sentence Stems: Provide everyone with a starter sentence such as “If you knew me…”, “Tomorrow, I….”, “I wish….”, or “I love…”.
-Story Starters: Provide the beginning of a story and the individual or group continues to complete the story. Examples of a story starter would be: “Betty dried her hands on the dish towel. Her kitchen was sparkling clean, just how her husband liked it. Now she was ready for him to come home.” Or “’Get out. You’re fired.’ Tom looked sheepishly at the floor. How was he ever going to explain this to his wife?”
-Describe yourself in as many words as you are old: For example, if you are 50 years old – you would describe yourself in fifty words. This might be a fun group activity and involve everyone in finding words to describe their peers.
-7X7X7X7: Grab the seventh book off the shelf. Turn to the seventh page and the seventh sentence on that page – use that sentence to create a poem or story – starting with that sentence.
-Nouns and verbs: First make a list of ten nouns and then ten verbs. Create a story using the ten nouns and verbs.
-Alphabet story: Write a story with a sentence starting with each letter of the alphabet, using the letters in their correct consecutive order.
-Mind Dump: The participant will write down any thought in their head. To facilitate this, you can play music or certain sounds or introduce a sensory experience. You can also give them one word to guide the mind dump.
-Six Word Memoirs : This is a fun idea introduced by Smith magazine in 2006. The challenge is to capture the essence of a topic within six words. The topic can be about anything – life, an event, a feeling or holiday. The web site has collections on various topics which can be used as a catalyst for the group.

There are many resources on-line related to the use of creative writing and poetry.
A search of writing prompts, creative writing and therapeutic writing will list many helpful web sites.
Here are a few:

~DH Special Services Pinterest Page – Painting with Words: Creative Writing

~Creative Writing Made Easy

~National Association for Poetry Therapy

~Time Slips Creative Telling

Check out the NCCAP 7 Hour Pre-approved Distance Learning Program
Creative Expressions with Individuals with Dementia