I began the third ElderSparks session for residents at a Trenton-area skilled nursing facility by talking about the value of play in adult lives. When I asked the participants what they did for fun, L~ (one of our regulars) said she liked going for drives in the country and seeing places she had never been to before. It wasn’t clear whether she was talking about the past or present — or confusing the two — but the experience she described spoke precisely to my point, i.e., creative self-expression as a vehicle (pun intended) for discovery, wonder, and delight.

My original plan for a sequential series of exercises based on collaborative drawing got little response at the start, so I quickly skipped to Step 4, an introduction to a non-spoken, visual language my colleague Cynthia and I call Squiggles. Squiggles, as I explained to the group, uses line, color, and shape to represent words and ideas. Because everyone has her own vocabulary, and a single word can fill an entire sheet of 8½ x 11 paper, it’s not exactly suitable for conversation. Nevertheless it can still be a very powerful form of communication, as the group soon learned.

In preparing for the session, Cynthia and I had worked with the word anger and liked the fact that it was a universal feeling exploding with energy. We suggested it to the group, and had Cynthia draw what anger looked like to her.

Cynthia does anger

Our other regular, E~, responded by saying that she closes up and contracts whenever she becomes ill tempered, almost to the point of disappearing. As a result, she didn’t think there was anything to illustrate. I suggested that maybe the blank sheet said it all, and held it in front of her face for her and others to see. “This is a picture of E~ being angry,” I proposed, and she nodded her head in agreement.

J~, a first-timer, went next and described the upset she recently experienced when things didn’t go as expected. Her way of representing anger was to start tearing the paper into smaller and smaller pieces. She stopped at a certain point and I asked if she also wanted to crumple the pieces into smaller wads, but she said she had done enough. By physically distressing the paper, she added a whole new dimension to Squiggles that Cynthia and I had never considered.

Elements of her story reminded me of what happened in the hospice when a patient sharing the room with my mother abruptly died. I wasn’t sure if it cut too close to home with these women and whether it was therefore advisable not to share it but I took the risk. When I was finished, Cynthia invited me to express what I had felt in Squigglese. I took a wide black marker and smashed its tip against the sheet in front of me, the ink splattering from the force I used. Even though I thought the hospice episode was well behind me, and that I had fully processed the conflicting emotions it evoked, the blotches startled me. Clearly, considerable anguish remained.

In the time we had left, three of the women freely and openly discussed how each dealt with anger. (A fourth woman, also a newcomer, had trouble hearing and couldn’t fully participate.) Cynthia and I just stood back and watched in amazement — the level of comfort, acceptance and sharing was truly remarkable. We couldn’t help but notice too how much lighter everyone had become, E~ especially who had arrived in a state of distress over an earlier incident. I was so moved by the experience that I suggested we end by holding hands in a circle. I wanted to do something to commemorate the beautiful space that had been created.

L~ informed me she wouldn’t come next time because she was going home. I believed her and was happy to hear the news until her social worker privately told me it wasn’t true.