Creative writing for self-expression: Meaningful engagement for older adults

Five people sit around a table, writing. One man’s pen moves slowly, precisely translating ideas into line. One woman’s hand moves in a blur, trying to keep up with her thoughts. A third person, who has a visual impairment, speaks while I transcribe his words. When we finish writing, we take turns reading aloud. Each person’s face brightens as we hear one another’s words. The wisdom in the room surprises us.

Write For You

Write For You is a expressive arts group with members in their seventies, eighties, and nineties who live in the long-term care community where I work. We have met weekly for the past nine months. During that time, our writing has incited laughter, tears, anger, friendship, love, sadness, and respect as we have read aloud to one another. As an art therapist, I look to creatively engage as many people as possible by making a variety of art materials and methods available. Anyone can benefit from creative expression, but using fine art materials can seem intimidating to many people. While I am lucky to work in a setting where it is not uncommon to overhear a woman in her eighties remarking to her friends, “I was never a painter until I moved here,” I hear even more frequently, “Art? Art’s not for me!”

Engage Creatively

I have found that writing can be a natural way to engage creatively with someone who does not wish to try artmaking. Usually, this happens naturally through simply listening for the everyday poetry in people’s speech and pointing it out to them. When introducing the expressive arts program to people I am meeting for the first time, I pay attention to their responses. When I hear poetry in their words, I write it down and read it aloud: “Nothing easy is good,” said one woman recently about her struggles in physical therapy. I wrote down her words and read them back to her. “It’s true,” she said, nodding slowly. With her thoughts externalized and mirrored, she was able to really hear herself. Because of interactions like this one, I started the Write For You group.

Why do you write?

I asked the members of Write For You why they write.
“I write because doing so is a great way for self-improvement; it stimulates me to learn things that I never knew before—knowledge that is extremely important to me.” “Writing has often been a cooling-down, comfortable time for me. At other times I race along—and the words can hardly be written down fast enough to express what I want to say. It is like a fountain.” “You have a lot of messages cooped up inside of you. You have the opportunity to release them and express them.”

What does writing for self-expression do?

Writing with a therapeutic arts lens has the potential to help engender:

What should the facilitator of a writing group consider?

The facilitator of a creative writing group must be aware of cultural factors such as level of education that may have shaped the role of writing in each participant’s life, and ask questions about the writing people may have done that they may not have acknowledged, such as letter-writing, oral storytelling, and technical writing. It is also helpful for the facilitator to be trained as an art therapist or other type of counselor, as writing without a filter can be evocative of a wide variety of emotions and group dynamics. In addition, each participant’s differences in ability may require adjustments such as transcription or audio recording. Writing can be part of a holistic approach to older adults’ meaningful engagement, along with dance/movement therapy, sensory stimulation, volunteerism, and other creative avenues.   ***Thanks to the members of Write For You for contributing to this article, to Elyse Baylis for editing this post, and to JoelMontes for the use of the photo.


  • Anne Millheiser

    This is so great Katharine! The allocation of funding for expressive programming is vital to the lives of the people we serve but the lack of funding is often discouraging– always nice to hear about active programming that is clearly making a difference.


  • Melissa Buckles Haley

    Great article! Writing can be done at any age and it’s great that this group exists to help people continue to use it as a tool!

  • Leah B

    Great article, Katharine! I’ve found writing and words are helpful tools for expression at any age/ability level.

    Does Magnetic Poetry make large-sized magnets? That might work particularly well to help generate writing ideas or for those with arthritis or have a hard time holding a pen/pencil for extended periods. Each participant could use their own set of magnets on a handheld cookie sheet, or it could be used as a group poetry writing activity.

  • Theresa Dewey

    This is great. I could really relate, especially to the piece about finding poetry in others’ speech – they are often far more creative than they realize!

  • Gabriel Lawrence

    I found your work encouraging. I work with the elderly and would like to find a alternative route to their imaginations and their outlet for expression other than art materials which, as you say, can often be resisted. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  • Katharine Houpt

    Leah, great idea! Thank you so much to everyone for your comments.

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