There’s a long tradition of writers gathering to swap stories and feed on each other’s creative energy. At Lutheran Hillside Village, a senior living community in Peoria, Illinois, that tradition has taken the form of the Pen Souls.
The members write in a wide range of styles on a wide range of topics. As a creative exercise, stories started by one member can be passed around and finished by another. These games help keep the creative “pumps primed”, which makes tackling larger, more personal projects easier.
“It’s good for mental dexterity — not to mention manual dexterity,” says Ken Jones, one of the founders of the group. “Just the act of writing keeps the joints strong.” And Ken knows his stuff — writing offers a wide range of benefits for older adults, from the intellectual to the physical to the spiritual.
For example, one psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin reports findings that indicate the act of journaling strengthens our immune system. Other researchers tell us that writing takes the edge off asthma and rheumatoid arthritis.
It all comes down to stress. Writing down thoughts about stressful or unpleasant events can help the writer sort through his or her feelings about those events, which lowers stress levels. People utilize the logically-oriented language centers of the left brain when they write. In writing about bad times, we rationally “unpack” our emotions.
This works on a daily basis for journal-writers, but it can also work on a larger scale. Combat veterans are encouraged to keep a journal to help “unpack” traumatic events they experienced on active duty. That’s one reason that many groups have started interviewing World War II vets.
But another reason for this initiative is one that resonates with millions of seniors — the desire to preserve a piece of living history.
“I wanted my children and grandchildren to have a better feeling for who I am,” says Jerry Carlson, a resident at Concordia Village in Springfield, Illinois.
In his 70s, Jerry has spent months writing his life story for the benefit of his family. “I didn’t know much about my grandparents. I wish I’d asked more questions. I didn’t want my grandkids to say, ‘I wonder what he was like.’”
The Pen Souls’ work is collected in a series of large binders, which are available in the Village library. But over and above the creation of a sizeable body of resident-produced work, and the health benefits for everyone involved, perhaps the greatest result of the group’s formation has been the friendships formed.
After all, writing can be a terrific social activity as well.
As longtime member Diana Carlson puts it, “It’s a wonderful way to get to know people in a different way. In fact, it’s the place where I get to know people the best.”