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McCallum: Elder Writers Circle

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Mary McCallum
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"Cups of tea fuel our thoughts as pens move silently across notebooks, pushed by arthritic hands that often yield results legible only to the writer."

The word community is in the news a lot these days. We hear about the black community, the LGBTQ community, the deaf community, the science community - large groups bonded by common identity or interests. What we hear less about is the value of community on a small scale. In my work with elders at an assisted living residence, I’ve been building a rather tiny community - one of writers, and it’s taught me about the challenges of aging in a society that isolates older adults. It’s not an exciting topic, but it’s newsworthy because the demographic is growing at a rate that’s already taxing our social and medical safety nets.

Each week I join five people in their eighties and nineties around a table, and we write. Cups of tea fuel our thoughts as pens move silently across notebooks, pushed by arthritic hands that often yield results legible only to the writer. Failing eyesight and faltering voices make it challenging to read aloud what they’ve written, but they don’t give up. They have a lot to record before memory cheats them of their stories.

We take turns reading our work out loud. After a year of sharing their life stories, this small circle has grown close. They support one another through tales of sadness and loss, then laugh uproariously at accounts from the old days when they were growing up on farms, working in factories, dating and raising babies. Near drownings, car mishaps, barn dances and mud seasons, all are gold to be mined from the memories gathered in their collective age of more than four hundred years.

And each time, I sit in awe of their willingness to show up, to take risks and bravely put their stories out there. The one man in the group is outnumbered, but in a sweet twist of fate, love has bloomed for him with one of the ladies, a circumstance I credit to the writing circle’s warm community spirit.

No longer part of their former geographic communities, these elders have learned to combat social isolation through building a new smaller one, one page at a time, in the third act of their lives.