Retired IC professor gives writing workshop at Longview

Every Tuesday at 10:30 a.m.inhabitants of Longview Senior Living Community gather around a set of tables in one of the nursing home’s community rooms and pull out their writing projects based on the previous week’s workshop – printed or written in their notebooks. The residents listen to each other, read their works and then give their opinion. After the meeting they will write more for the next week.

Jerry Mirskin, retired Ithaca College professor, taught the non-fiction creative writing workshop to residents every Tuesday since March 15. About five to 10 residents typically attend workshops each week. While some come and go, others attend regularly. They share their work in a room dedicated to Ithaca College workshops. Mirskin, who runs the workshops, conceived of the idea because he wanted to give Longview residents the opportunity to share their work with each other and receive feedback.

“I’m happy with the workshop,” Mirskin said. “I get very positive feedback from the seniors, and our sessions are very real, in the sense that we participate in something that has a lot of meaning, and the meaning reinforces the attention.

The workshop encourages Longview residents to write about their life experiences, whether sad, funny, thoughtful or mixed. A resident wrote about his experiences in the military towards the end of The Second World War. He described how after not being able to have milk, one of his favorite drinks, after arriving at training camp, he stole some from the dining hall. He then hid from the guards and drank it all. When Ithaca asked if he regretted the decision, he said no.

Other residents write on subjects that are very close to them. Resident of Longview Joanna “Sunny” Kuskin wrote about her husband the death and read his work to Mirskin and his fellow workshop participants.

“There’s a wonderfully satisfying thing about using your mind, and that’s very important to me,” Kuskin said. “When I was [at Longview]…. I’m trying to figure out what my life here has in store for me, because it’s important for me to feel alive.

Ardie, resident of Longview Bennet says although she has already had experience with writing, she wants to continue developing her skills.

“I think I have a long way to go and a lot to learn” Bennet mentioned. “There’s a lot of stuff that I’m very new to and I have a lot to say… But I think it’s very nice.”

After each of the workshop participants has read their articles, Mirskin and the other participants offer suggestions. They say what marked them, what they thought was the theme of the story, and how it could be improved. Mirskin said the style of writing that the eldersfocused on seemed to fit their interests.

“They appreciate the form of writing that we do: creative short non-fiction,” Mirskin said. “It seems to fit right in with where they’re at in their lives…The stories seniors share are fascinating, and watching them enjoy the writing process is very satisfying.”

Creative nonfiction uses the creative writing techniques of poetry and fiction to tell true stories. For older people, it can be a great way to tell stories of their rich lives in an exciting way.

Workshops like Mirskin’s can be key to lifting the spirits of older people in nursing homes. According to a study by Isabella McCarthy-Zelaya of Portland State University, approximately 20.3% of nursing home residents suffer from major depression. With more than 800,000 Americans residing in assisted living facilities, as the American Health Care Association reports, that’s nearly 170,000 residents with depression.

Mirskin’s origins in writing go back to Ithaca College, where he worked for nearly 30 years. He first started teaching in writing in college in 1992, and shortly after, the School of Humanities and Sciences created the Ithaca Seminary Program, which helps students adjust to the college experience. While working with the seminary program, Mirskin saw a connection between freshmen transitioning into college life and seniors transitioning into nursing home life., which inspired him to start offering workshops at Longview, and he’s done them occasionally ever since.

“In both cases, seniors and students were transitioning and adjusting,” Mirskin said. “I thought they would like to share their experiences with each other, and I connected students in my class with seniors.”

Seniors said they enjoyed working with Mirskin, particularly because of his writing experience. He published his first collection of poetry, “Imagine a door hanging open and let that door be the sun”., in 2002, and has since published two others: “In Flagrante Delicto” and “Crepuscular Non Driveway.

“[Mirskin] seems really enthusiastic about it,” Kuskin said. “He seems really willing to listen to a different point of view and a way that makes you feel good.”

The current workshop will continue until the week of May 3. After that, Mirskin plans to do more workshops. He said he wanted to provide more opportunities to help older people in the area.

“I want to continue volunteering in our community. I volunteered at a hospice for six years and also offered workshops at a nearby drug and recovery center,” Mirskin said. “I think as a teacher of writing, I am able to offer something meaningful in my field in which I have expertise and enthusiasm.”

Student volunteers are also welcome to participate in the workshops, especially those with writing minors or who are interested in collaborating with seniors. Mirskin encourages all interested parties to join.

“I encourage you and others to engage in activities where you can trade with people from other generations,” Mirskin said. “His intergenerational fun!”

Scott R. Banks