The Advanced Class

Memoir Writing at Frasier Meadows Retirement Community 

by Naomi Rachel 

Telling our stories is good for our brains and it can also be a great deal of fun and help build community. We all have great stories to share and only need help getting started. 

Last year, a friend in Canada told me about the great memoir writing class he was taking for seniors on Vancouver Island. He sent me a few samples of his writing, which were lively and engaged. I was very interested in the historical context of his writing. He wrote about what it was like for him 60 years ago, and it occurred to me that teaching memoir writing to elders could be an educational for me and a new teaching challenge. 

I approached Molly Briggs at Frasier Meadows, an independent living retirement home in Boulder Colorado and found a very enthusiastic educational and activities director. Molly was not sure if there would be interest but we decided to test the waters and announced an eight week class that would meet once a week. 

I didn’t hear for a week and then Molly told me that seventeen residents had signed up. We established a waiting list and I began teaching fifteen women ranging in age from 80-97. I had no idea what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised. For the women involved, the class was an escape, and I’ve never had a more appreciative group of students. They did the assignments and shared them weekly. After eight weeks, no one wanted to stop the class so we continued. We have now been together for about thirty weeks with no end in sight. We are currently compiling a book of participants’ work organized by assignment. 

I have learned a great deal from these students and often wish my college-age students could hear their stories. It’s strange to go from the class at Frasier Meadows where I hear stories of appalling past sexism (women in an orchestra required to use the back entrance) to my university students who proudly proclaim “I am not a feminist.” 

The set up for the class is very casual. We sit around a large table. I often begin with brief ice-breakers. For example, I ask students to close their eyes and imagine a scent that evokes a memory. When they have it, they open their eyes. Then we go around and share. 

For homework, I usually give two assignments: a brief one we can share in a few minutes the next class and a longer assignment of about 500 words. I asked them to keep a sensory image book daily for the first eight weeks to see if it becomes a useful habit. For some it has and for others, not. I do think they have all come to realize that such exercises are simple acts of attention and add to our appreciation of the world around us. 

As with any writing class, I give examples of stellar work and recommend reading. I have never made the assignments easier than I would give to upper division college students or even graduate students and I tend to think that is why the classes have been so popular. For example, in the second class, I talked about titles and subtitles and we went over examples of successful and unsuccessful examples. Then I gave them their short assignment for the following week: title and subtitle your life. I would not give such a challenging assignment the second week of an undergraduate class, and I often teach these elders more the way I teach grad students. They are advanced in age and ability.

Lesson Plans

Here are three assignments the class completed, with examples of writing for each. 

The Photography Assignment 

The Place Map Assignment 

The Character Sketch

About the author

Naomi Rachel earned a MFA in Creative Writing and a PhD in English Literature. She teaches at the University of Colorado, mentors writers in prison and teaches school teachers how to teach poetry and creative writing. She believe that writing is a life support system and helps us live more fully.

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