It’s become customary to begin each ElderSparks session by holding hands as we sit around the table. It’s a way for the residents to experience connection and fellowship — and to help lessen the feelings of isolation and alienation that so easily afflict an aging, impaired population.

For the last three weeks, hands have been our entire focus — or more specifically, paper representations of them that could be used, like business cards, to introduce oneself along with a handshake. The picture below is a sample I made to illustrate different coloring and design possibilities; the text, I jokingly explained, was for anyone interested in palm reading.

(Click on images to enlarge.)

Week #1

First, we had to address E~’s refusal to do anything that felt to her like kindergarten. She’s voiced this objection before, and it’s not an unusual one among adults. It calls into question the whole rationale for ElderSparks and improvisational play, and offers me yet another opportunity to preach the gospel. “Don’t get stuck,” I cautioned, “on the crayons and other basic art supplies we’re using. This isn’t about the medium or a polished piece of art. Instead, it’s for self-exploration, self-discovery, and creative expression — seeing the world afresh, sharing who we are, and thoroughly enjoying ourselves in the process. These are experiences we never outgrow no matter how long we live; in their absence, our spirits go hungry and atrophy.”

For support, I turned to one of the art books that S~, a former quilter, always carries with her. It happened to include a cartoon-like painting by a mature and respected artist. “Does this belong in kindergarten too?” I asked.

E~ was a minority of one and finally dropped her resistance. We finished the session by tracing everyone’s hands on heavyweight paper for me to later cut out. The marker I used accidentally left some ink on their hands but fortunately, I was able to wash it off. I’d like to think that they enjoyed the attention each sullied finger received, despite the fact that manicures aren’t my thing.

Week #2

Instead of holding hands at the start of our second session, I placed the paper hands at the center of the table and asked everyone to reflect quietly on the display in front of them:

To me, there was surprising power in these simplified forms. It was like seeing the essence that lies hidden beneath the differentiated surface of reality.

We devoted this second class to thinking about ways that each of us could personalize our paper hands. What colors, for example, would we choose to express friendship in new social situations? L~ picked pale blue because it was “light, not heavy,” and related to her nursing career. J~ chose yellow and pink because they were “bright, cheerful colors.” And E~ and S~ agreed on white for its cleanliness and purity. When sadness and depression were mentioned for the sake of contrast, L~ piped up: “That’s me,” she laughed. I respectfully suggested that a truly depressed person wouldn’t be acknowledging it with a smile — much less regularly attending ElderSparks.

Turning to personal interests and passions, we spent a lot of time talking about favorite dishes, either childhood ones or our legendary kitchen triumphs as adults. J~, who had been a food columnist and restaurant reviewer for a local newspaper, was probably responsible for starting us down this path. The list included: a white potato pie for dessert, stuffed breast of veal, stuffed chicken, macaroni and cheese, coconut cake, and something that sounded like bacon and eggs but wasn’t. (Alas, current dining room offerings were noticeably absent.) It was fun to realize we were sharing our love of pork in a kosher facility, and to fantasize about the kitchen preparing the favorite recipes of residents on a regular basis. L~ said she was inspired to try the stuffed chicken recipe even though she hadn’t cooked in years.

Week #3

This was the week for breaking out the markers, colored paper, glue, and pens. Loretta, another ElderSparks assistant, and I assisted the residents because of their limited manual dexterity. They were the ones in charge though, and final arbiter for every aesthetic decision. I love that each creation has a distinctive personality.

 (To preserve privacy, some details have been obscured.)

In S~’s hand (above left), you can see her refined color and design sensibility at work. E~`s piece (above center) reflects her years as a mother and homemaker who cared deeply about her children — and still does. The three hearts represent her sons, aged 65, 62, and 54 with the youngest one in the middle. (The recipe itself was omitted because it called for Italian bread which E~ assured us she never used for this particular dish.)

J~’s totemic hand (above right, still incomplete) riffs off the long-running joke about palm reading: it doesn’t take a clairvoyant to determine how important food writing, family, reading, music, Washington, DC, and walking are to him. As we were finishing up for the day, he looked at what he had done with obvious pleasure and delight: “This is so adorable!” he proclaimed.

I was equally touched to see that in this briefest moment, he could speak as fluently as he once wrote.