The Living Words Program had its start when Joyce Finkle, of the Alzheimer’s Association-SC Chapter, sent out an e-mail in search of a program for an Alzheimer’s Early Stage Support Group. Jeremy L. C. Jones proposed creative writing workshops that would bring local writers in direct contact with people diagnosed with dementia and their caregivers. The idea grew out of Jones’ work using storytelling and writing as a way of re-building his father’s memory who had suffered from brain damage. But creativity needs a counterweight, so we looked at the science that would back this up as a worthy endeavor. After a handful of meetings, it became clear that the program would benefit from the expertise of Dr. Kara Bopp, a psychology professor at Wofford College who specializes in aging and memory. Living Words was born through conversations between Finkle, Jones and Bopp.
The earliest workshops were provided for Spartanburg’s Alzheimer’s Support Group. Meetings were held once a month for a year starting in February 2008. Local writers donated their time and expertise to lead a workshop. The writing genres selected for the series included childhood memories and life experiences, haiku, creative fiction, nature writing, and poetry. The enormous potential to help individuals with dementia, their caregivers, and anyone involved was recognized by all. Writing seemed a perfect activity for anyone, but especially older adults. It is great exercise for the brain. It is inexpensive and easy to get started. Writing in groups also provides a necessary social outlet. We see three major benefits of Living Words — 1) cognitive (exercising and stretching your brain), 2) social (bringing people together) and 3) emotional (release of feelings and reminiscence). See posts in the FAQ section for more about that!
From 2008 thru 2013 the program was implemented at 15 locations in South Carolina, positively impacting over 200 older adults. Each location had a “leader”, a volunteer to organize the workshops of approximately 10 adults each. In many of the locations the leader was a local college student or the activities director of a facility. The leader didn’t need any special knowledge, just a willingness to bring the group together and encourage participation.
There is no typical Living Words Program. It has been done with a variety of people ranging in age, cognitive, social, economic, educational, and physical levels. Group sizes range from 3 to 25. Some meet weekly, others once a month. Some groups brought in external writers to provide writing prompts. The part that remains the same is that each workshop provided a new, unknown writing prompt that allowed individuals to write on-the-spot for about 15 minutes before sharing what they had written with the group.
We started a website in 2009 (thanks Lauren Holland!). The site got approximately 100 to 200 hits per month, mostly from U.S., but also from locations around the globe (from Ireland to Ghana!). There were monthly requests for more information regarding how to start a Living Words program in their hometown. We hope to answer that call with the current website!
As with any new program, undertaken without a similar model to build from, we are learning and evolving. We continuously seek feedback and have made changes based on that. The program we have now is not the one we started with, nor the one that we will have down the road. Please share with us your thoughts about Living Words!