Every Tuesday at 10:30 amresidents of Longview Senior Living Community gather around a set of tables in one of the nursing home’s community rooms and take out their writing projects based on the prior week’s workshop — either printed out or written in their notebooks. The residents listen to each other read their works then provide feedback. After the meeting, they go and write more for next week.
Jerry Mirskin, a retired Ithaca College professor, has been teaching the creative nonfiction writing workshop to the residents every Tuesday since March 15. Around five to 10 residents usually take part in the workshops each week. While some cycle in and out, others have been routinely attending. They share their work in a room dedicated to Ithaca College workshops. Mirskin, who leads the workshops, conceived of the idea because he wanted to give Longview residents an opportunity to share their work with each other and receive feedback.
“I’m pleased with the workshop,” Mirskin said. “I’m getting very positive feedback from the seniors, and our sessions feel very real, in the sense that we’re participating in something that has a lot of meaning, and meaning enhances attention.”
The workshop encourages Longview residents to write about their life experiences, whether they’re sad, funny, reflective or a mixed bag. One resident wrote about his experiences of him in the army toward the end of World War II. I described how after not being able to have milk, one of his favorite drinks, after arriving at boot camp, he stole some from the mess hall. He then hid from the guards and drank it all. when The Ithacan asked if he regretted the decision, he said he did not.
Other residents write about subjects that are very close to them. longview resident Joanna “Sunny” Kuskin wrote about her husband’s death and read her work to Mirskin and her fellow workshop attendees.
“There’s such a wonderfully satisfying thing about using your mind, and that’s very important to me,” Kuskin said. “When I’ve been [at Longview]…. I’m trying to get a grasp of what my life here holds for me, because it’s important to me to feel alive.”
Longview resident Ardie Bennett said although she has had experience with writing before, she wants to continue to foster her skills.
“I think I have a long way to go and a lot to learn,” Bennett said. “There’s a lot that I am very new at and I have a lot to say… But I think it’s very enjoyable.”
After each of the workshop attendees read their pieces, Mirskin and the other attendees offer suggestions. They say what stood out to them, what they thought the theme of the story was, and how it could be improved. Mirskin said the style of writing that the seniors focused on seemed to fit their interests.
“They are enjoying the form of writing that we’re doing: short creative nonfiction,” Mirskin said. “It feels like a good fit for where they’re at in their lives… The stories the seniors are sharing are fascinating, and to see them enjoying the process of writing is very satisfying.”
Creative nonfiction uses the creative writing techniques of poetry and fiction to tell true stories. For the seniors, it can be a great way to tell stories from their rich lives in exciting ways.
Workshops like Mirskin’s can be essential morale boosters for senior citizens in nursing homes. According to a study by Isabella McCarthy-Zelaya of Portland State University, around 20.3% of residents in nursing homes suffer from major depression. With more than 800,000 Americans residing in assisted living, as reported by the American Health Care Association, that’s nearly 170,000 residents experiencing depression.
Mirskin’s origins with writing tie back to Ithaca College, where he worked for nearly 30 years. He first started teaching writing at the college in 1992, and soon after that, the School of Humanities and Sciences created the Ithaca Seminar program, which helps students adjust to the college experience. While working with the seminar program, Mirskin saw a connection between the freshmen who were transitioning to college life and the senior citizens who were transitioning to living in nursing homes., which inspired him to start offering workshops at Longview, and he’s done them on and off ever since.
“In both cases, seniors and students were making a transition and an adjustment,” Mirskin said. “I thought they would enjoy sharing their experiences with each other, and I connected students from my class with seniors.”
The seniors said they enjoyed working with Mirskin, especially because of his background in writing. He published his first poetry collection, “Picture a Gate Hanging Open and Let that Gate be the Sun”, in 2002, and has since published two more: “In Flagrante Delicto” and “Crepuscular Non Driveway.”
“[Mirskin] really seems enthusiastic about it,” Kuskin said. “He seems to be really willing to listen to a different point of view, and a way that you feel good about it.”
The current workshop will continue to the week of May 3. After that, Mirskin has plans to do more workshops. He said he wants to provide more opportunities to help senior citizens in the area.
“I want to continue volunteering in our community. I was a hospice volunteer for six years, and I’ve also offered workshops at an addiction and recovery center nearby,” Mirskin said. “I feel that as a writing teacher, I’m able to offer something meaningful from my area in which I have expertise and enthusiasm.”
Student volunteers are also welcome to participate in the workshops, especially ones who have writing minors or are interested in collaborating with senior citizens. Mirskin encourages any interested parties to join.
“I encourage you and others to join in on activities where you can have commerce with individuals from other generations,” Mirskin said. “It’s intergenerational fun!”