Academic journal article Care Management Journals

The Language of Memory: The Influence of Writing and Reading on the Lives and Weil-Being of Senior Adults

Academic journal article Care Management Journals

The Language of Memory: The Influence of Writing and Reading on the Lives and Weil-Being of Senior Adults

Article excerpt

Every Tuesday morning I teach two classes to older adults at the Jewish Community Center of Central New Jersey, located in Scotch Plains. One class is called The Short Story and the second is Writing Family Histories. I frequently spend Monday evening preparing for these two sessions, carefully choosing stories or articles that might interest a group of seniors with varied backgrounds and experiences. I head into class early, sometimes spending an hour or more making copies of stories for each class member, enlarging the print size considerably for them. I know I will have to speak clearly and project my voice. In addition to vision problems, many of these seniors have difficulty hearing.

During the first session, attended by about 48 people whose ages range from 70 to 100,1 usually have to wait my turn to use the material I've selected for that day. Most often, some of the seniors from the writing class have written articles or stories of their own and are anxious to read them to the short-story class. I hold my stack of copies up to show that I've got some plans for the day, too. I raise my voice. I joke. I try to push my weight around. I am, after all, the instructor. But they are persistent and always win the battle. They've been inspired by last week's class, they insist, or by some world event, and really want to share their work. Besides, next week they might have the flu, God forbid, or the paratransit bus that brings them here might be late, or they might have a grandson or granddaughter visiting them. Or, they might be in a hospital or nursing home, something they universally dread. Their one point of agreement is their wish to remain in their own homes or apartments, and to be independent, for as long as possible. Their second wish, according to one of them, is that they die in bed.

One by one, they come up to share their stories, standing at the front of the class. Even though some of them walk with canes, they rarely need assistance when they come up to read their work. They stand without benefit of lectern (the custodian rarely remembers to put one out) and without a microphone (we've finally given up asking for one). The act of writing and the reading of their stories seems enough for them. Many of them are shocked by the fact that they are writing at all. They are energized by what they have produced and nurtured by the act of sharing it with a community of peers, and their work is as varied as they are.

Rose Gelfman, for example, is an 84-year-old who, in 1939, at the age of 23, escaped from Vienna to Shanghai, leaving her entire family behind, then spent 20 years in Israel and Australia before arriving in America. She is widowed now and lives in subsidized senior housing. Her ankles swollen from a heart condition and wearing two hearing aids, she walks to the front of the room holding long, lined yellow paper in front of her. She is impeccably dressed and dignified. For about 5 minutes, the members of the class complain and struggle to hear her: "Speak up," they order, or, "Stand closer, we can't hear you." There is general shuffling and adjusting as they grouch among themselves before finally settling down. Rose reads her title. This memoir is about Kristallnacht. It is November 9, 1999, and Rose wants to commemorate the occasion by reminding her audience what it was really like for Jews living in Austria. As soon as she starts reading, the class quiets down, hushing each other as they struggle to hear, some of them adjusting their own hearing aids. She begins:

The alarm clock goes off at 6 a.m. I wake up to a gray November day as ominous as all the days since March 12, 1938, when Austria was "liberated" by Adolf Hitler, or as we call it, "occupied" by the Nazis through the Anschluss- unification with Germany as the Ostmark-a province of the Third Reich.

I take a cold sponge bath as every day and get dressed quickly to prepare breakfast for the four of us: Papa, who is reciting his morning prayers, my sister Franzi, 16, who is still rubbing her eyes, and my brother Emil,13. …

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