Below you will find information about the benefits to providing this program to your group, may it be a writers group, a women's club, programming event, or a support group.
By Kara L. Bopp
Our typical list of positive attributes to the program is: 1) cognitive stimulation, 2) reminiscence and reflection upon one’s life, and 3) release of stress. Let’s look more closely at each one of these benefits for all individuals that may be involved with the Living Words program.
First, cognition refers to any type of “thinking”, such as attention, memory, language, and problem solving. The saying “use it or loose it” has been supported by several research studies. It is necessary to work-out your brain, just as you work-out your body. Like physical exercise, you need to work different parts of your brain by thinking in different ways (e.g. verbal vs. visual), and the workout needs to be challenging. For the individual who completes a crossword puzzle every Sunday, they should challenge themselves to new types of puzzles (e.g. change from words to picture games, such as Mahjong). Activities that are new and different or traveling to new places are great forms of cognitive stimulation since they require new and challenging forms of thinking. Mental workouts are good for everyone, but especially individuals with dementia in hopes that it will help to slow the progressive cognitive decline. The Living Words program also has the attributes of a challenging and varied mental workout. If multiple workshops are held, each week there is a different type of writing that challenges the attendees to think in new ways. There is also the benefit of challenging themselves to find words to match their thoughts. The use of language in the verbal and written form is great mental exercise. We believe the act of pen to paper is also a unique and important component to the program.
Second, reflection and reminiscence are gained in the Living Words program during workshops that ask the attendee to remember a time in their past. The practice of remembering (because once you begin to think about a certain time, often other memories come back too) is more support for the cognitive stimulation benefit, but it also provides a chance to reflect upon stories that one may not have thought about for quite some time. At any time in life, but especially as we grow older, time spent reflecting upon the past is necessary in order to give perspective and organize the themes of one’s life story. We all feel it is necessary to leave a legacy or a mark on the world. The Living Words program not only provides the opportunity for reflection, but to write down these stories so that they can be passed on to loved ones. This can be especially useful for individuals with dementia as their stories may be forgotten in the coming years. Their writing, of their past or not, can be a part of their legacy for their families and friends to cherish. In later years, the stories can also be read back to the individuals with dementia, and can be a fun and stimulating activity.
Finally, unfortunately, stress, sadness and anxiety can accompany the lives of both individuals dealing with dementia and their caregivers. Each has their own reasons for stress, but the Living Words program may be helpful for all involved. First, there are benefits of socialization and having fun with others in the creative writing workshops. Time spent getting out of a stale routine at home, and instead, talking and writing with others can be fun, which will reduce negative affect symptoms. Second, writing about stressful life events has also been found to reduce depression and anxiety. “Writing therapy” has been used for many populations (college students, eating disorders, individuals with depression), but there are also a few studies that have found it useful for caregivers of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease. We also believe that it would be useful for individuals with dementia, but to date, no studies that we know of have examined writing therapy for that population yet.
In the future, we will also refer you to specific articles for each of the areas discussed above, but if you have a specific question please let us know so we can direct you to the appropriate article or book. You can email us at anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org .
By Joyce Finkle
The Alzheimer’s Association-SC Chapter and its early stage dementia and caregivers group has had the distinct privilege to work cooperatively with an esteemed college and a writers group from Spartanburg, South Carolina since February of 2008. The collaboration came out of a coffee-laced conversation the Spartanburg office staff had with Jeremy L. C. Jones, an English lecturer at Wofford College and a board member of The Hub City Writers Project .
Our early stage caregivers had expressed the need for more activities for their partners, and forcreative things that might engage them and their caregivers. The support group element had been very effective, but since they had dealt with some early stage issues and were now seeing some mid-stage challenges, members of the group were looking for something more.
We looked at this request as a challenge and found that when needs are addressed creatively, excitement and energy accompanies the efforts.
From a conversation at Starbucks, a whole series was envisioned that would pull in area writers, who had sensitivity and awareness about dementia and who could lead persons with dementia and their caregivers in a variety of teaching and writing exercises. The styles and topics selected for the series included childhood memories and life experiences, haiku, creative fiction, nature writing, and poetry.
But creativity needs a counterweight, so we looked at the science that would back this up as a worthy endeavor.
Dr. Kara Bopp, professor of psychology at Wofford College and some of her students have explored the body of literature on the topic of therapeutic writing. Writing has been shown to help people deal with stressful or traumatic events and experiences. We knew this and expected to see some caregivers benefit from this.
What we think is new and different about the Living Words program, is the effect this writing experience can have on those with early stage dementia. And that is something our researchers are exploring.
We are fortunate to have been able to forge this connection in the arts and academic communities with our local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. The National Chapter has a strong commitment to early stage Alzheimer’s individuals, and they seek their input on programming, communication and advocacy issues through a national advisory committee, focus groups and informal groups and through conversations.
As a new program, undertaken without a similar model to build from, we are learning and evolving. We continuously seek input and feedback from the group and have made changes based on that. The program we have now is not the one we started with, nor the one we will have down the road.
From this ongoing transformation, comes a sense of excitement and anticipation for improvement. We are grateful to be part of this activity that brings people from different perspectives and talents together to make a positive difference for people dealing with dementia.
We hope that Living Words will spread to other chapters and can be replicated in residential and community care settings as well.
Visit the Missouri Writers Guild's website and read Linda Fisher's "Writing As Therapy: Rocks and Pebbles" for her experience as using writing as a way of therapy from a caregiver's perspective.