MEMOIR WRITING IS THERAPEUTIC. Or so I’ve been told at least once in every one of the hundreds of memoir writing classes I’ve taught. And I agree. Most of the time I draw the line at it being therapy, however, preferring to keep the discussions to what is on the page and not to what happened next in life. However, there is no denying that for some populations, memoir writing is both therapeutic as well as a form of therapy. Such is the case with the many memoir writing classes for patients of Alzheimer’s disease, the stories from which have taught me to embrace the therapy of memoir writing. Here to write about one of these classes is the author Anne Decker, who leads one such group.
THE LEGACY WRITING GROUP
Every once in a while you get a shot at doing something you love, something that loves you back. This is the case with the memoir group I facilitate for early stage Alzheimer’s patients. When William (Bill) Hinrichs, Program Director for the Northeast Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, asked me about leading a writing group, I jumped at the chance. I had plenty of experience with Alzheimer’s, thanks to my husband’s ongoing struggle with the disease and was familiar with patients in groups. I knew their capabilities were far greater than you would expect, especially where long-term memory is concerned – the stuff of memoir. And I am a writer, so the allure for me was obvious.
We expected several, but only one person showed up for the first meeting. However, she was dynamite. She started at the beginning and it wasn’t long before a starting point appeared and she was launched. As her excitement grew, so did mine. She didn’t have a typewriter or a computer, and was writing in longhand. I took her work home and typed it up on my own computer. As it turned out, she was a natural, adept at sorting experiences and keeping the important and interesting ones. She said her grandparents’ house looked like it belonged to the Addams family and there were sausages hanging to dry on the third floor rafters. She wrote about a life-changing automobile accident and a pass at entering a convent. She wrote exactly as she spoke, with grace and conviction. Bill, the program director, had to sit in anyway, and started writing his own story for his own children. I made notes about mine. Before long, Writer Number One’s children were so impressed by her work they gave her a laptop. Turns out she could type, just needed something to type on.
We kept getting feelers about more people coming to the group and right away, a man and his wife/caretaker joined us. The gentleman is a gifted raconteur and has wonderful memories about his childhood in Albany; stories about schools and streets and shops – dairies and butcher shops and shoemakers that no longer exist, in a section of Albany that has changed exponentially since he grew up there. He attended a high school that closed decades ago and is remembered only by those who went there and those who taught them, all of them in their eighties and beyond, or gone. This man can no longer physically write words on paper, but he can still spin a compelling tale and his wife takes them down and types them up for him. What he says about his part of Albany is as relevant as what Macarthur Fellow and Pulitzer Prize winner William Kennedy says about his.
We just picked up three more memoirists and expect another two. The group is gelling and more and more stories are being set down for safe keeping.
It was just as well the group started small – I needed to feel my way through how it should run and what it should accomplish. It is now a snappy hour right after lunch on Mondays, to which everyone comes early and eagerly, and we all read what we have written over the week. What it will produce in the long run is a printed, bound copy of each individual memoir written for the writer’s loved ones. Imagine what a gift that will be for their families. Imagine the spirit that goes into the telling of these stories and how a written record will keep that spirit alive for generations to come.
The program is supported by a private grant to the Northeastern New York Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, which provides mentally stimulating activities for persons diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer’s disease and similar organic processes. That’s quite a mouthful for something that is really fun for all the participants. They keep me both laughing and crying and I am always aware of the effort that is being made to open a window into the lives of my storytellers. They tell us who they are now and who they have been. It would be a shame to waste that and more of a shame if their families had no idea. I feel lucky beyond words to have the opportunity to be a part of the program; it is one of the few jobs I have had in my lifetime that I cannot wait to get to!
Anne Decker writes memoir and observational non-fiction about marriage and family life, addiction, Alzheimer’s disease and whatever else is happening around her. Anne has an MFA from Bennington College. Her work has appeared in newspapers, periodicals in Upstate New York and several anthologies. She has read many essays on public radio. She has been on the board of the Hudson Valley Writers Guild, and is currently judge for its humor writing contest.
She facilitates a workshop at the Northeastern New York Alzheimer’s Association for early stage Alzheimer’s patients who want to leave their life stories for their survivors, particularly their children. The group is known as the Legacy Project and is open to any person within the demographic who is interested in leaving more than a memory. For more on the project, visit The Alzheimer’s Association Northeastern New York chapter.
Anne Decker’s website will tell you more.