#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!


#24 Interpreting and/or collaborating

I’ve been speaking to many writers about their projects with older people. What they do, how they do it, and why it matters.

Where the Heart is‘ was a set of artist residencies developed by David Clegg with Age Concern Central Lancashire.  Six artists received open commissions to produce new work about the experience of working with those with dementia.

It’s led to so many amazing new pieces of work. Poet Sarah Hesketh published a superb collection The Hard Word Box last year. Novelist Sarah Butler produced Who Asked You? A fine collection of stories, interviews and personal essays. Jennifer Essex’s dance films and her work depicting co-dependence are startling and evocative.

Not arts therapy, or facilitated writing classes. Nor the chance to create work to display for visitors. The aim was for each artist to respond creatively.

They read, they wrote, they recorded conversations. They thought about, as Hesketh says, “how radical life writing can be.”

The project offered new perspectives from young artists on ageing, caring and living with dementia. This is a great model to consider. Serious, but open-ended enough to allow artists the freedom to create unexpected pieces.

‘Where the Heart is’ helps me think about what I mean about making literary work with older people. Community artists in Australia termed my work and this project ‘interpretative.’ I do understand this criticism. It raises ethical questions when an artist offers a perspective on older people’s experiences, rather than allowing them speak for themselves.

Then again, my activities, and that of both Sarahs included interviews and verbatim pieces in their work. Also, ‘Where the Heart is’ intended to show the reality of dementia care settings. It’s a secluded world that we don’t usually get to see.

How do you create art, let alone co-create art in dementia settings? How do you collaborate in a way that’s based on the needs and aspirations of those you are working with? Is using the words from a conversation with someone part of that process? Some artists say so, others disagree. Can listening and recording with someone else be co-creating? Maybe.

There’s room for activities which are collaborative and/or interpretative. As I continue with my research, I’m just keen to see a range of literary projects with those in later life.  Testing ideas, exploring the models, thinking about what writers of all ages need to create it. I’m trying to hone in on the work I want to produce, and that I want to see made.

#23 Dementia, immediacy and writing direct from life

I spent an afternoon in July at Age UK Bromley & Greenwich, completing my certificate in Dementia Awareness for volunteers. The course, led by specialist Maureen Lang who has 20 years experience of working with people with dementia, offered fresh ideas and the opportunity to enhance some of my thinking.

The training aimed to offer up-to-date best practice dementia awareness, and add confidence in communicating and supporting people with dementia. We talked through the importance of engaging with someone’s present, rather than always looking to retrieve memories as a starting point for discussion.

The session focused on being ‘present’ and alert as a volunteer. As someone always interested in immediacy and creating writing direct from life, this mindset appeals. It’s great to have training that isn’t aimed at supporting artists to facilitate or create projects in dementia care settings, but instead just think about how we interact, one to one, human to human.

Maureen advocates for not necessarily agreeing with stories of the past or memories that seem real at the moment, but instead engaging with the person’s feeling. “Avoid confrontation, avoid collusion and avoid contradiction,” she says. It’s about finding ways to deal with arising issues through the person themselves, by knowing enough about them to work out what might be needed.

I keep thinking that the best kind of work I can produce as a writer – and what I hear most often from other artists – is that which is produced collaboratively, or in conversation, or in response to just one other person. (I’ve made a few writing-from-conversation projects, like Speak to Strangers:Bankside, at Tate Modern – see image). Maybe it’s just harder to represent the ideas of a group, or it’s more difficult to listen to more than one voice. My big plan is to create a beautiful intergenerational literary project that involves older people as co-writers, working face-to-face and one-to-one with a writer.

#22 Writing Across Cultures

Pat Lowe migrated to Western Australia in 1972. There she met her partner and Aboriginal artist Jimmy Pike. Pat joined him at his desert camp under a tree, and the pair went hunting and collaborated on several books about desert life. It was these books, that Pat shared with us during a workshop I attended at London’s second Australia and New Zealand Literature and Arts Festival.

Telling Other people’s stories: Writing Across Cultures was a great session, considering the ways stories are gathered and rewritten by others. Pat shared her methodology and the difficulties of interpreting someone else’s world for an English-reading audience.

Many of the challenges are the same for artists working with older people in care. That is, does anyone other than that person have a right to tell their story?

Pat believes it was the spirit of the work that matters, the impression of being in the company of those she was writing about, picking up on both verbal and non-verbal aspects. Her aim was to share her understanding of the Aboriginal Australian community she knew. Her books, she says, are accessible. To be so, she chose not to write in dialect but to ‘translate’ the language for readers. For her, it was important to show the eloquence of Jimmy and his family.

There are many ethical questions about the role of artists working within a community. Should Pat have only used Jimmy’s words in her books? On the one hand, people’s stories were mediated through the lens of another. What might have been lost in that process?

On the other hand, her training as a psychologist gives great confidence in her judgment, and in the 1970s and 80s she was one of the few white Australians producing work with indigenous Australians so her work had enormous social value. Plus, her books were used in WA schools to share details of Aboriginal culture and promote understanding.

Food for thought.

#21 Normal? Festival of the Brain

I jumped on a train to Folkestone to Normal? Festival of the Brain.

A collaboration between Living Words, Quarterhouse Folkestone and Folkestone Fringe and offered a programme which explored the brain from all angles. With mental health and dementia covered, the workshops, discussions and performances aimed to stimulate and spark new debate.

I was keen to attend, as really great art and performance was at the heart of it all. From Bryony Kimmings’ Fake it ‘Til You Make it – a new show about depression and about love – to artist Annie Ho Cooper’s textile showing the unraveling of a beautiful old tablecloth – I saw so many interesting pieces.

My favourite moment was premiere of spoken word poet Leah Thorn’s film Watch. This is a glorious, insightful, vulnerable poetry film that uses spoken word, photography and found footage to consider a daughter’s relationship with her father and his dementia. It’s so thoughtful and so personal, and like nothing else I’ve seen about the condition.

Often poetry or art about dementia is shown through fragments. Text on the page loses meaning, words drop off the end of sentences. Or stories are half told, or it’s a confusing jumble of images or text. This, of course, is evocative. It depicts the perceived state of mind of someone experiencing the illness. But while this can be evocative and also accessible, it also reduces the experience to one idea. It focuses on what’s been lost rather than what has been created.

Leah’s work is absolutely about her father’s creativity. His playfulness, his love of jokes. It’s a celebration of the man, who he was and embraces who he became, too.

#20 Cooking up some plans with Age UK

Since I’ve been back in the UK, I’ve continued meeting with writers and organisations that support writers to work with older people. I hold my hands up and say this is still a fairly new area of work for me, so I’m treating each conversation an open mind and eagerness to understand.

I’m pleased I decided to phase this project, as now I’m concluding my thoughts about Australia, embarking on more research in the UK, and preparing for the US trip. It makes it all more manageable and gives me some space to reflect, too.

With Age UK Bromley & Greenwich, I’m planning a new creative project for 2016 into which some of this research will slot. We’re thinking of one-to-one creative projects between older people living in the boroughs, and me, and possibly some other writers and artists too. It would be a sort of creative befriending scheme, intimate but purposeful, too.

My dream is for these to be ambitious commissions, where the two people – the writer and the older person – develop writing, or a literary project together. The outcome will be different for each, and fit the interests and needs of both sides.

#19 This work needs to be made

Reflections now I’m back in the UK…

At the centre of all this research is the search for excellent writing.

I’ve read loads of essays, novels and poetry collections and watched performances about ageing. Some were academic or research-led, some offered a view into the life of older people (such as The Hard Word Box, a poetry collection by Sarah Hesketh), some were told from the viewpoint of a person living with dementia (Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey and The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlene, for example).

Each piece had great qualities and some weren’t quite convincing. Regardless, it’s a reminder that this work needs to be made. The more writing about and for and with older people that is created and shared, the wider the possibilities for the rest of us as readers and writers.

Although it’s tremendously hard to navigate through the paperwork and regulations in the health and care sectors, the only way to build the argument that high quality literature activity matters here too is to develop amazing poetry, fiction and performance projects.

Over and out, for now. I’ll keep updating this blog with further thoughts and conversations as I continue my travels in 2015.

Thanks for listening.

Gemma x

#1 – Well, hello!

Thank you for visiting my blog. I’m Gemma Seltzer, a writer working online, live and in print.

Writers Meet Elders is a research project that explores creative writing and ageing. It is supported by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, and undertaken in partnership with Age UK Bromley & Greenwich.

During 2015/16, I’ll carry out research in the UK, as well as Australia and the USA, considering what it means to work with those in later life as a writer, why it matters to be listened to and engaged creatively as an older person. I’ll locate the best models of creative and professional support for writers working in this area, and also think about the impact of time and age on writing, too. Find out more, here.

I plan to share examples of beautiful and brilliant literature and creative ageing projects from across the world, and will kick off with my first post on 21 April, when I’ll be in Sydney.

Til then!