Students studying outside the library

Coggins continues Living Words program

COS Jennifer Coggins 382x255

Success Initiative project provides creative writing outlet for dementia-related patients, caregivers 

SPARTANBURG, S.C. - Faster than ever, America is getting older. As the Baby Boom generation continues to gray, there is greater interest than ever in the study of the aging process and the means by which good health, both physical and mental, can be extended.

Dr. Kara L. Bopp, assistant professor of biology at Wofford, and Jeremy Jones, a lecturer in English at the college, have accomplished remarkable things in studying that process, especially the mental aspect of it, through their Living Words program. It is a creative writing program for adults with Alzheimer’s or other dementia-related conditions and their caregivers. The program is designed to exercise the brain the way we might exercise our bodies at the gym.

Jennifer Coggins is the second student to become heavily involved in that project. Jennifer continued the work conducted in the summer of 2009 by Lauren Holland, who has since graduated. Holland ran workshops and provided other assistance to the program. “I’m very grateful for all the work she put in, because basically, I’m building on what she did,” Coggins says. She also benefited by participating in many activities with other student researchers in Wofford’s Community of Scholars interdisciplinary summer research program, although her project was funded by Success Initiative.

“As we age, exercising our minds through creative and mentally stimulating activities is important for maintaining memory and general brain function,” Coggins says. “Creative writing not only stimulates the mind, but can also be emotionally therapeutic. This can be especially beneficial to older adults as they experience the life changes that come with growing older.”

One of the things Holland did last year, and Coggins continued this year, is create writing prompts. A writing prompt is intended to stimulate participants to consider some situation in detail and write about it. Sometimes the prompts required recollection of childhood memories. Other prompts might focus on current conditions. In one session, Coggins asked her subjects think about something they’d learned from someone else. Then she asked them write about something they had taught someone else and to describe that experience. “We got a lot of good responses through that one,” she says.

Coggins organized and led Living Words workshops in three Spartanburg area locations – the Life & Wellness Senior Center at Archibald Rutledge, White Oak Assisted Living and Independent Living -- concentrating on socioeconomically diverse groups of older adults with varying levels of mental and physical ability. Coggins discovered that some writing prompts were more engaging than others and she quickly learned how to modify the prompts to suit the mood and composition of the groups. She also assessed the effectiveness of the workshops by asking participants to describe the ways in which writing creatively had benefited them.

“I worked to compile a collection of writing from the Living Words workshops, both to share the participants’ interesting stories, and to showcase the kinds of writing that are done in our workshops,” she says. “The workshops, which (were) either once or twice a week, provide(d) participants an important creative and social outlet, and a space to share their feelings. For me, it (was) an opportunity to get to know dozens of interesting people, each with unique and affecting stories.”

Coggins says she has had positive feedback from the workshops, and hopes to continue providing Living Words workshops this fall.