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Writers Meet Elders

Gemma Seltzer discusses her current project exploring creative writing and ageing….

Olive tells me she’s ninety-five and made mainly of metal. There’s her hip replacement, the rods in both her legs.  She sits in a metal wheelchair, uses a metal walker. We’re in an aged care home, there’s half an hour until lunch. But my mind is chess, sonnets and, sometimes, orchids, Olive says. Nothing metal there at all. Metal or not, I reply, how on earth did you reach such an impressive age?

My visit is part of Writers Meet Elders, a project I developed with Age UK Bromley & Greenwich. For this local branch of a national charity, I'm a writer-in-residence, creating poetry and micro-fiction with – and for – older people. I like to spend time with those in later life, partly because my grandparents died when I was young and also because I want to share my enthusiasm for creative writing with others.

I was thrilled to be awarded a travel grant from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, which has allowed me to meet those working in similar fields in Australia and the US.

Photo of Gemma, staff and elders

My research considers the best ways to commission and develop authors, poets and spoken word artists to work with older people. 

What have I discovered so far?

  • Writing workshops offered in aged care often use as stimulus reminiscence rather than imagination. There are some exceptions. The lively Brooklyn-based Alzheimer’s Poetry Project facilitates the creativity of older people living with dementia. Performance poet Gary Glazner's calls out classic poems line-by-line for participants to echo. He then invites those present to contribute to a communal poem, which he performs at the end. Bringing professional writers to develop activities with elders enhances the range of literary activities available. It provides opportunities for older people to tap into their own creative energies.
  • There’s room for quieter, more mindful creative projects, the kind poetry lends itself to deliver. Meditative projects may soothe and engage quieter older people. They might offer an alternative way of understanding ageing. UK artist Leah Thorn made a glorious, thoughtful short film called Watch. It uses poetry, stories and photographs to share the impact of dementia on her own relationship with her father.  
  • In Brisbane, I joined WAW Dance Group class for mature women. The graceful bodies that spun around me were inspiring. Afterwards, I turned straight to the page. I see positive links between dance and poetry. Shifting sensations in the body unlocks creativity in the mind.
  • Training for writers doesn’t always need to be formal. Rather than join a skills development course, artists could visit a Death Café. Such meetings use empathy as a tool, encouraging people to talk to strangers about the end of life.

 I have big ambitions to design new literary projects. One-to-one commissions partnering older people with writers/artists–a creative befriending scheme. Plus an experimental group project in which we’re writing or performing live. Both will aim to engage, inspire and dispel the myths of what both writers and older people can achieve.


Gemma SeltzerGemma Seltzer writes online, live and in print. Her latest venture is Writers Meet Elders: projects and research about creative writing with older people. and



Images provided by Gemma Seltzer



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