#50 Quiet intervention in the landscape

IMG_4416In Yorkshire Sculpture Park, there are a series of exposed tree roots on the ground. They’re almost hidden by the fallen leaves where you walk. Fine, that’s expected. We’re outside after all. But on closer inspection, you notice the bark catches the light in a curious way. There’s something unusual here, but it is subtle. Speed Breakers, the roots of a fallen beech tree cast in bronze, is a piece of art by Hemali Bhuta. It’s a quiet intervention in the landscape, encouraging you to pause before moving ahead.

The idea of quiet intervention is at the heart of many of the best literature projects with older adults and about the experience of ageing.

I’m using the notion of an intervention that creates a shift in perspective for a new endeavour of my own. It’s a creative befriending scheme, linking writers to older adults living alone. In the pilot project, I’m undertaking one-to-one visits, offering an intimate space for shared creativity.  We talk. We look through books. We read classic and contemporary published writing. We use our words, photographs and objects to create a story or a poem together. By combining creativity and befriending, this project offers participants a unique chance to meet new people, and explore their own imagination in the comfort of their own home.

Read the rest of this article on the British Council literature blog.


#49 The final report!

I’m pleased to be able to share my final report, which considers all my experiences to date in the UK, North America and Australia.

Here is the report in full!

Writers Meet Elders, a creative writing & creative ageing project, explores the exciting possibilities for making and sharing stories and poetry. It examines the range of ways literary activity can engage writers and older people, as audiences, artists, collaborators and participants. And it reflects specifically on activities offering professional or creative development opportunities for writers.

I present my findings under five themes to define the different roles a writer can take in a project with older people. These roles—collaborating, facilitating, making, showcasing, and teaching—are offered with case studies of creative activities with older people in Australia and the United States of America. The case studies show the numerous possibilities for older people and writers to create meaningful and vibrant literature projects together.

Three key conclusions are that:

  • Literary projects by older writers, with older adults and about ageing include dynamic spoken word poetry events and transmedia stories. There are huge opportunities to invigorate the field by commissioning artists of all kinds to develop projects.
  • Formal artist training in the UK could be improved, and there must always be space for intuition, responding to the context and informal training.
  • Bringing together editors, producers, writers and artists to review and generate critical discourse about the kinds of literary work being developed feels vital.

Sharing and debating this report are part of my next steps. And I plan to:

  • Develop a creative befriending programme and commissioning project to link writers to older adults living alone.
  • Explore poetry, film, sound and technology in a literature project made with elders.
  • Support a training programme with practical guidance and mentoring, for a diverse range of writers

There is so much potential for artists to co-create literary activities with those in later life. For supporting and deepening the creativity of older adults. For organisations to commission bold, excellent and disruptive projects. This is a burgeoning area of arts practice, ripe for investigation by those willing to take on a challenge and be open to its possibilities.

I first started working with older adults alongside my local Age UK in 2012, and have since then had many tremendous conversations, shared challenging moments, gained insights and hopefully offered something towards the creative expression in later life.

With thanks to Winston Churchill Memorial Trust and Age UK Bromley & Greenwich for the opportunity to travel and research, and to all the people I met along the way.

So, what do you think? What strikes you as important? What is open to debate? I’m keen to hear your thoughts!

If you think there are opportunities for us to work together on a project or event, please get in touch – via the comments page, email (gemmaseltzer @gmail.com) or follow me on Twitter!

Image: From Arts for Aging’s ‘Dance and Blues’ session at Downtown Clusters Geriatric Day Care. Photograph by Stephanie Williams.

#48 Recommended reads on ageing, caring and dementia

Writing in fragments is not the only way to share experiences of dementia. While this can be evocative and accessible, it reduces people’s individual experiences to one idea. It focuses on what’s been lost rather than what has been created.

Here’s a list of books and literary projects about ageing, caring responsibilities and/or dementia.

Graphic novel

  • Tangles: A Story about Alzheimer’s, My Mother, and Me, Sarah Leavitt (Freehand, 2010): vivid portrait of a daughter and her mother as the elder progresses toward the late stages of dementia. Unusual, heartbreaking and delightful, too


  • The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit (Granta, 2014): heaping story upon story, this beautiful memoir is about how dementia changed and enhanced the author’s relationship with her mother


  • The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001): story of a dysfunctional family at Christmas, with scenes about the father, his Parkinson’s Disease… and a talking turd
  • Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun, Sarah Ladipo Manyika (Cassava Republic Press, 2016): Glorious novel about a cosmopolitan Nigerian woman, living in San Francisco. In good health at 74, she lives a joyful existence
  • The Wilderness, Samantha Harvey (Vintage, 2010): Jake is losing the words he knows while piecing together the loss of his wife and daughter. Fascinating exploration of language
  • We Are Not Ourselves, Matthew Thomas (Simon & Schuster, 2014): a book about a family, their charms and quirks, and how their lives unstitch when dementia is introduced into their world


  • An Anthology of Poems about Ageing (Emma Press, 2016): includes poems by fine contemporary poets Julia Bird and Harry Man
  • The Hard Word Box, Sarah Hesketh (Penned in the Margins, 2015): terrific poetry collection written during the writer’s residency in a secure dementia care facility

Poetry films

  • My Mother’s House, Victoria Bennett and Adam Clark (2015): a astonishing poem-world built within a game of Minecraft, using Bennett’s experience of caring for her mother in the last phase of life
  • Watch Leah Thorn (2015): this spoken word artist created a poetry film about the impact of dementia on a father/daughter relationship

Short fiction

  • The Bear Came Over the Mountain, Alice Munro (from Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, Vintage, 2002): an older married couple and their response to her changing behaviour resulting from Alzheimer’s disease

Do you have any other recommendations? Let me know, if so!

#47 Name an elder who inspired you


Hello all!

I wanted to let you know that my Writers Meet Elders evaluation is almost ready to publish!

In this final report, I share experiences from my travels in the UK, US and Australia, and offer eleven case studies of amazing literature projects with, for and by elders.

I open with a list of responses to the questions above. I asked this of many of the older people, care staff, artists and cultural organisations I met on my travels.

Answers were moving and funny, personal and professional. Here’s just a few:

My parents who were big thinkers and lived until they were 88 and 89 /// Vera, who was wild and beautiful. A Holocaust survivor, a writer. Women like her changed everything for other women. /// My grandmother, who taught me that words were powerful things. She did the cryptic crossword each day. /// Auntie Edna who adored exploring the bush. /// Leloba, a great philosopher  /// My beloved Grandma: a feisty, argumentative, left-wing intellectual who studied books, art, theatre and music. I miss her desperately.

I expect the report will be available to read and share in November. Watch this space for more information!

#29 Stopping to pause

“Every day you may make progress. Every step may be fruitful. Yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb.” – Winston Churchill

Post #29 is a moment to reflect on this project so far, which is around nine months old.

Writers Meet Elders is a project I developed to bring together the strands of my thinking and practice about ageing and writing. 

It includes my writing projects with individual and older groups of people, and research into supporting writers to make creative work with elders. It’s supported generously by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, and Age UK Bromley & Greenwich.

In 2015, I travelled to Australia to spend time thinking about what it means to work with those in later life as a writer, and why it matters to be listened to and be engaged creatively as an older person.

I visited projects and met writers, artists, cultural organisations, care centres and funders to consider opportunities for older writers and those working with older people.

Next week, I leave for the US to continue this research by visiting New York, Washington DC and Milwaukee.

The more I embark on this journey, the clearer my thoughts become.

Here’s three things I have in my mind at the moment:

  • There are so many ways that stories and poetry are being used in care and community settings, enabling older people to express themselves. They’re mainly writing for wellbeing and life-writing  projects, so I’m still keeping alert for imaginative projects that bring in writers to craft new work with those in later life.
  • I’ve been writing poems with older people. I wonder how my writing practice is impacted by working with elders. When writing about dementia, there’s a tendency to write in fragments: text on the page loses meaning, words drop off the end of sentences. This can be evocative but the focus on what is lost may limit the kind of writing being made.
  • Training for artists to work with older people exists, usually learning a specific model of practice. I’m enjoying uncovering additional ways that writers can source their own support. For example, attending a Death Cafe and talking to strangers about end-of-life, care, and ageing could offer a supportive space for artists.
  • My big dream is to set up one-to-one creative commissions between older people and writers/artists–a kind of creative befriending scheme. The two people–the writer and the older person–develop writing, art or a literary project together.

I’m excited! There’s a lot more to see and do.

#28 Death Café

This week I attended my first Death Café.

It was held in the upstairs of Blighty Coffee in Finsbury Park, north London. Running the session were two women who trained as End of Life Doulas.

The format of this Death Café was simple. Join a table, introduce yourself and why the Death Café attracted you, and let the conversation flow. There’s no agenda, or rules. It’s not therapeutic, but it is supportive.

All you do is talk and listen, ask and consider your responses. In our group we had a filmmaker, two academics, someone obsessed with death since a child, an anthropology student and a pregnancy photographer.

It sounds morbid, but Death Cafés are vibrant places.

The founding notion is that people just don’t talk enough about death. About their own, about the demise of others, about the deep, dark places thinking about death can take them too, about the happiness that comes from understanding that life will one day end.

The topics we covered ranged from West Indian funerals to reincarnation, how motherhood changes your relationship to your own mortality and how procrastination eats into precious time but is also a reminder that we don’t need to rush through our lives.

I didn’t envisage Death Cafés as part of my writing and ageing research, but after an evening talking about end of life, good deaths and personal philosophies, I realised what a vital space this could be for older people and artists working with elders, with bereavement and in end of life facilities.

It’s amazing to find a place where small talk was swiftly replaced with big thinking in favour of big thinking. Somewhere which proves the value of facing your own fears about death in a safe place with others.

One of the reasons I embarked upon my Writers Meet Elders research was that after months of working with older people in care, I found I didn’t have anyone to talk to about the feelings arising.

The exhilaration, confusion and sadnesses. Mostly I enjoyed the work, mostly the elders I worked with were warm and receptive, chatty and cheerful. But sometimes people whispered that their sharp minds were trapped in ageing bodies, or how they were filling time with activities to ward off encroaching loneliness. Families didn’t visit, health was failing.

Something like the Death Café – a positive and open space to consider what it meant to be facing the end of life – may have helped me, and helped them too.


#27 How to say it

I’m struggling to find the right words to talk about the research I’m doing.

I’m not comfortable with participatory literature. Or participatory writing. This is partly because ‘participatory’ feels like a dramatic way to describe the act of joining in with something.

Creative activities that bring local people or gather together those with a common link is community arts. An artist makes work alongside a community, rather than for them. An artist facilitates the experience, not using the experience to stimulate their own work. Often, it’s not appropriate for one artist to have a louder voice than the others who share their stories. But I also am excited by projects that offer the lead artist to both support others and also create new work.

I hear performing artists talk of Applied Theatre. That is, using theatre practices in less traditional spaces. For example, with communities, with schools and in prisons. Applied Poetry could work, following similar principles, perhaps.

There’s other ways of describing this work, too. Writing in a Community Setting. That’s direct. Although should I say, Writing in, for, by and with communities? What is a community anyway? The word seems to negate the sense of individuals. And my writing always comes from life, from one-to-one conversations I have.

One term I do like is collaborative writing. It suggests working with others, innovation and embracing the unexpected. Authors and poets generally, historically, write books alone, but this is a different approach that creates different kinds of work. It fits with my previous projects, which try to bring people together or offer new ways of reading, or sharing writing.

What do you think?

(Image from a recent workshop I ran for emerging writers)

#26 When are you nurturing creativity?

“When are you nurturing creativity?” asked Caroline Jeyaratnam-Joyner to a group of us at a workshop for community artists. “And when are you imposing your own vision?” We all considered this, and it struck a chord with me.

The question rattled around in my head.

Spare Tyre, which creates arts projects for people at risk of not being heard, ran the workshop. The organisation’s approach is powerful. It’s about empowering vulnerable individuals to find a role in an arts project. As a designer, a creator and a decision-maker.

The question rattled for one main reason. It reminded me that I feel I have to persuade people that writing creatively with others matters. That collaborating to make literary projects can be fun, rather than just worthy. That it can be as challenging to work with people who dismiss  contemporary poetry, as it is to engage in the craft of writing itself.

It’s true that whenever I mention my research, or work with a new group of elders, I justify what I want to do before I begin. I can’t nurture others, if I’m so focused on getting my point across.

My fellow Spare Type workshop attendees helped me think this through. In the future, could I offer a project structure to let others work out how to react? And my practiced lines about the importance of writing and wellbeing, and offering the space for others to find their voices? Maybe I could express it non-verbally. Through experience rather than my words.

It follows the writing advice we’re told time and again. In your work, you should show, not tell.

#25 Happy Birthday!

I’ve been quiet for a while, because I threw myself into a new project. For Age UK Bromley and Greenwich, I’ve been creating brand new series of written pieces to celebrate 50 years of the organisation.

I spent four weeks asking clients, staff and volunteers of all types to share memories, thoughts and impressions of the charity. I attended art groups, day centres, coffee mornings and advice-sessions. I travelled to corners of London I’d never visited before. Together, we all chose the stories we wanted to hold up to the light and then I wove them into six new pieces.

At Age UK Bromley & Greenwich’s AGM, in the presence of the Mayor of Bromley and many of the participants, I read a few of the pieces.

One, Alphabet of Elders, is based those I met – and also the names of the most interesting, inspiring, significant older people I asked them to share.

Another, pasted below, is one of the three poetry- portraits I produced with and for one of the residents of a care home.

Mary is mainly metal

Mary says that at ninety-five,                         she’s made mainly of metal.

There’s the hip replacement,                          the shoulder operation.

Metal screws in her spine.                                In both her legs, rods.

She sits in a metal wheelchair,                        she uses a metal walker.

Her mind is sharp,                                               nothing metal there at all.

She reads the papers,                                         she’s friendly to everyone.

There’s chess and cards                                     and bingo.

But as she’s made of metal,                             she’s not quite herself.

It’s like wearing someone else’s coat,          a coat like her coat

the same size, the same buttons,                   but it’s not hers.

She knows it’s different.                                   It simply looks the same.


Happy 50th Birthday Age UK Bromley & Greenwich!