One of the expressive arts programs I facilitate as an art therapist in a retirement community is the Porch Group. The group’s members developed the idea for a residents’ newsletter which they now produce monthly. This is a retelling of the paper’s origin, wherein I begin to address some benefits provided by such a forum.
Identifying the need
During a Porch Group meeting in mid-2011, group member Karen* was verbally processing frustrations related to the passing of a woman with whom she used to share a table in the dining room. Her frustrations focused around the way she had dined with an empty chair for days before learning of the other woman’s fate. Karen felt an emptiness; she wished she had known sooner. More than that, she longed for a formal way to recognize her table mate’s passing. It had to be significant that her table mate had been there.
“Grief is an emotion that needs a witness in order to heal.” Author and performer, Elizabeth Wells writes about the importance of expressing grief as a part of the healing process.
Make friends of fellow residents
Others agreed. They also wanted to honor the passing of friends, acquaintances, and even those who remained “strangers” within the walls of their large home. “And what about those strangers?” Gladys said. “I want to meet the people who live next door to me right when they move in.” She then recounted how she got to know Vicki, a friend from a neighboring wing. “All I knew was people called her the crazy cat lady.” About six months after Vicki moved in, Gladys approached Vicki in the laundry room for the first of many conversations. “Yes, she has a cat, and she’s odd, but she’s a great story teller. She goes on walks and comes back and tells these wonderfully detailed stories of the people she meets. If I hadn’t gone out of my way to say hello, I never would have known that.”
“There’s also a large body of literature showing that people who are more socially engaged, are less lonely
, have more social support and are more socially integrated are also doing better cognitively in older age.” Janelle Wohltmann, a graduate student in the University of Arizona department of psychology shares observations from her ongoing study of older adults using social media.
Meeting the need
Opinions culminated in the realization that there should be a place to share news, to get to know one another, to publicly honor those who had walked their halls and dined at their tables. “Why isn’t there a residents’ newsletter?” the members asked. “Let’s write one,” I said. After that, many of the group members energetically bounced ideas off one another, supporting and modifying each others’ proposals. It was like a spring rain had fallen on a garden that had been thirsty for so long. Chicago Bridge member, Christy Schoenwald, shares her experiences and observations strengthening community through visual arts.
To the presses!
By the next meeting, I had gained approval from the administration. The staff had been intrigued and supportive. The front page of the first issue welcomed a list of new neighbors. Another article introduced the paper and invited all residents of the retirement community to share their news by placing writings in submission boxes placed around the building. Also on the front page was a work of untitled prose written by a woman who only used the name “A newcomer.” The piece mused optimistically about the promise and possibility she saw in clouds and the sky upon her arrival at her new home. Chicago Bridge member, Katharine Houpt, writes about the meaningful engagement the act of writing can be for older adults.
The Porch Group produced their 16th monthly newsletter at the beginning of March. With every issue, residents find new ways to use the paper to inform and motivate, to honor residents and staff, to share grief and celebration
. I will detail more of the paper’s successes and growing pains in my next posting.
*All names have been changed.
Thanks to Stephanie Maurice for editing this post and to Old Sarge
for the photo.