Feet to the Fire Writer’s Workshops®: It's the Process not the Product
Connection, mental clarity, meaning and purpose for residents and differentiation for the senior living community—what’s not to love?
NG: What is your background and how did you start Feet to the Fire Writer’s Workshops®?
AB: I have an MFA in creative writing, and pursued that to be a writer. I do write frequently, but also began teaching in higher education. I taught freshman composition and creative writing classes for college students initially. In 2014, the same year I turned 50, I decided that I wanted to do something more meaningful with my life. So, I began a passion project in my living room whereby I invited complete strangers to share in the process of expressive writing.
During the first months, many people wrote about their lives, and then the next year I tried it out in a retirement community as a pilot. It was so successful, and it opened me to working with older adults. I felt this pull, so I followed it. It eventually turned into Feet to the Fire Writer’s Workshops®, now a licensed program in senior living communities and other organizations. So far, we are in 10 states and 45-plus communities.
Now more than ever, there is a need for people to have this process available to them, to experience a reimagining, a revisiting of their life before they're gone. Our workshops are about caring for the whole person while they're still alive, rather than merely capturing life stories for after they’re gone.
NG: We have talked about the difference between the product of writing and the process. Please elaborate.
AB: Feet to the Fire is about the writing process more than the product -what happens in the in the midst of them sitting down and having these conversations with themselves and writing. That's some serious brain power going on. There is some very serious. reminiscence going on.
It's a creative process and they get a chance to share with other people; it’s a collective sort of engagement. There’s a fellowship and they are working toward a common goal—writing their stories. Everybody wants to see what everybody did with those prompts each week. We tend to not believe that our stories are valid, or we just hold them inside. This program helps people validate their own voice. Having other people listen and validate our experiences seems to be something that we're all starving for right now.
Writing is a very thoughtful cognitive process. We even see people that have early to mid-stage Alzheimer's Disease and Dementia participating while they still have verbal skills available to them. Engaging in the writing process is tremendous. It’s like crossword puzzles on steroids. I don't think there is anything more cognitive except for composing music or creating art.
NG: How does Feet to the Fire work with senior living operators?
AB: In some respects, the pandemic has been a positive force for change in senior living. Some leaders are beginning to realize that they can’t keep doing resident engagement/life enrichment the old way and expect different results. Their programming needs to be cool and innovative to satisfy a different clientele.
Some of our clients buy the Feet to the Fire writers’ kits and distribute them to their residents, and of course there is special pricing for bulk purchasing. Some communities charge an a la carte fee for participation, and some are paying a monthly fee for the program, and residents have that option to join the group. Residents love to receive the tangible kit; it’s like a little gift.
Ultimately, there must be a license agreement to protect the program that we have invested years refining. We offer two options for implementation—train the staff to run our program, or act as an outsourced life enrichment service and run the programs with our staff virtually. All the senior living operator needs to do is to make sure the residents get on the weekly Zoom calls, and we run the groups for them. All the residents need is a screen, a microphone, and the internet. In some communities I'll zoom in and they have me on a big screen, which I love because I’m able to learn who these people are too.
In a few senior living communities, we even have residents leading Feet to the Fire Zoom groups. Utilizing the skills of the residents gets around the challenge of staff shortages and allows the resident to feel valuable. We have a group in California right now run by a former English teacher.
NG: What are the benefits for senior living communities working with Feet to the Fire?
AB: Feet to the Fire is a great marketing tool and differentiator. The program is a cool way to engage would be move-ins or depositors who come in and don't know a soul. It’s a difficult transition. Being part of our group makes them feel comfortable and allows them to get to know people on a deep level because they've written and shared stories. Again, it’s about the process—helping someone think about their lives and capture those stories themselves and write them in their own words is incredibly valuable.
We develop long-term relationships with our senior living partners. Community, lifelong learning, and purpose are keys to success, and Feet to the Fire delivers on all fronts. Besides combating loneliness and isolation and cognitive stimulation, the reflection and ongoing process of writing brings meaning and purpose. It’s also naturally personalized, because no two stories are alike. Storytelling goes back centuries, and telling our stories never gets boring. It satisfies something deep in our souls.
NG: What’s in the future for Feet to the Fire?
AB: We’ve begun piloting Feet to the Fire for use with cancer groups, bereavement groups, rehab, and eventually will see use with hospice and other palliative care. Our program is adaptable enough that use can extend to people of all ages and in different scenarios.
NG: Tell us something personal about yourself.
AB: Most people don’t know, but I had a 360 degree spinal fusion with titanium rods & screws that saved me from certain neurological deficits in my legs and feet-it literally was the hardest thing I’ve ever endured-healing took 6 to12 months. It was also the best outcome and literally fixed me! It gave me tremendous insight into how very important our ability to walk, bend, move freely-is to our physical and mental well-being. I’m bionic!
NG: What’s your motto?
AB: Feet to the Fire’s motto remains “you are the author of your own life.” We believe that will always hold true. We’ve watched people find autonomy and purpose by owning their voice.