We planned on starting our weekly ElderSparks session with a relaxation exercise involving eyes-closed, deep breathing. The idea was greeted with a very polite and unanimous,”Thanks but no thanks.” L~, a former nurse, made a good faith effort with the inhalations and exhalations but kept her eyes open; M~ sat sphinx-like, hands resting comfortably on the table, palms facing down, breathing normally. E~ preferred to talk about relaxing rather than actually try it. Whether their resistance had a physical basis or a psychological one was hard to tell.

Taking a cue from M~, I tried to show how body language can reveal a person’s inner state. Did I look more relaxed, I asked, with my arms hanging comfortably by my sides or folded tightly across my chest. What about when I crossed my legs and scrunched my shoulders?

Having struck out on the relaxation front, I suggested a substitute: holding hands with each other as we sat around the table. Doing this at the end of an earlier session proved very special: why not do it in the beginning too? Hokey as it sounds, it introduces a sublime energy — however fleeting — that grounds us in connection. It’s unfortunate that failing minds and deteriorating bodies keep that experience out of reach for many seniors.

Afterwards, we played a round of Twenty Questions, a game I’ve become quite fond of for encouraging residents to talk about themselves while interacting with one another. Certain aspects they handle well and find enjoyable (e.g., being the center of attention as everyone else seeks clues to the answer; the playful challenge of discovering so-and-so’s “secret”); other parts however, like the need for deductive reasoning based on easily forgotten yes or no responses, are more problematic.

We asked everyone to think of something they liked most about their current living situation — whether it was an activity, person, service, room, or exterior location — and then had the group try to guess what the answers were. M~ drew a blank, so I asked if there was anything he particularly disliked. He came up with a staff member whose name he diplomatically declined to reveal. Acknowledging he had issues with someone on staff was a small breakthrough, I thought, for a man who usually keeps everything to himself but his sense of humor. “Is this person a young individual?” one of us asked. To which M~ replied: “How old is young?”

Having spent long enough in the realm of words, I turned to a collaborative art project I’d been wanting to do for weeks. Each person was given a sheet of paper on which to draw whatever they wanted. I had to assure them over and over that producing great art was not the object — no one expected them to be Picassos. After a minute or two, they were asked to pass their sheet to the person on their right, who would then continue to add to the drawing until the sheets were transferred again. We went around the table like this until every piece had a contribution from each participant. As they drew, I asked them to pay attention to their process — e.g., were they building on what went before or trying to take it in a new direction? Mostly, though, they wanted to know why we were doing this and not be judged for their artistic shortcomings. “It doesn’t matter,” I’d say. “It’s simply an experiment in creating something together with no particular end in sight. Maybe we’ll discover something really amazing by the time we’re finished — or maybe not. It’s just about being open to whatever happens, and new discoveries.”

Near the end, I didn’t even have to ask them to pass their sheets — it happened naturally as the art-making turned into a blur of papers going ‘round the table. It reminded me of an assembly line one might find in a Chinese factory that churns out painting reproductions by the thousands. L~ kept exclaiming, “This is far out! This is far out!” I consider this one of the highest compliments ElderSparks has ever received.

When we were done, we looked at the drawings, sharing our impressions of each and any recollections about the process.

This drawing began with random red dots. L~ connected them by creating the lines of a house. E~ installed a yellow door and windows. Someone else planted a tree. My colleague Cynthia noted the addition of a basement.


Most of us saw a smiling face with glasses at the center. Do the gray lines above and below the face represent its body?


 Serious abstraction.


In landscape mode, I saw a flower inside a whale’s stomach; in portrait mode, a flower embryo inside a womb.


M~ looked at this and shrugged his shoulders. “All I see,” he said, “is lines and colors.” (Much to my surprise, I felt tremendous power in his honest, unfiltered response.)


L~ found a ruffled curtain or shade in this picture, framing a distant scene with trees.


We concluded with a visual version of the telephone or grapevine game in which a message or story is passed from one person to the next in whispered sequence. At each repetition, the original gets more and more distorted, usually with hilarious results by its eventual retelling. In this ElderSparks exercise, it was curiosity about where our journey would end (as each person took a turn at the wheel) — rather than laughs — that interested us.

On the left is the image we started off with; on the right, is where we finished: