DOWNTOWN — Some things are better left unsaid, but others can feel impossible to get out.
A new program offered at WISE & Healthy Aging is designed to get the elderly to write letters to people who will never see them as a way to work out and examine complex emotions that they so far have not been able to express.
Over the course of six weeks, participants will put pen to paper and create “Letters From the Heart,” which Sheila Segal, director of WISE & Healthy Aging’s peer counseling program, believes will help people open up, even if the subject of their discourse is beyond their reach.
“It’s an opportunity for people who have unfinished business or emotional difficulties that they want to express, but not necessarily send the letter,” Segal said. “They can identify unfinished business.”
The concept is guided to a degree, giving participants the latitude to write what they wish or conform to certain topics if they need more structure.
“It’s about evaluating your life,” said Marsha Hirsch, a trained peer counselor and one of the facilitators of the group. “You reach a point in your life that you’re looking back more than you’re looking forward.”
The concept appealed to Hirsch, who identifies as a writer.
Hirsch had an opportunity to use letters to see into her own past several years ago while helping to wrap up matters after her mother’s death.
In the process of going through her belongings, Hirsch found a stack of letters she had written to her mother over the course of 40 years.
“It was like looking at my life in a diary,” Hirsch said. “She kept every single letter.”
Although many of the emotions may be painful, or difficult to share, the facilitators believe that there’s more that seniors can examine.
Barbara Siegman, the second facilitator, was too young to think to ask her grandmothers about their experiences with the suffrage movement before they died.
Both would have been about 40 years old in 1920 when they won the right to go to the ballot box for the first time.
“There’s 1,000 places you could go to explore thoughts about relationships,” Siegman said.
The writing will take place during the week, and mostly by hand. The letters will be no more than two pages, which forces the writers to concentrate on emotions rather than life stories.
The weekly 90-minute sessions will begin with small groups, even pairs, reading the letters to one another and getting feedback, Hirsch said.
“Maybe they had a different slant on what you wrote than what you thought you were writing,” she said.
If time allows, the writers will then get a chance to share their work with the larger group.
Interest in the group is already building, Segal said, but not from the usual suspects.
“I imagined this would be mainly women, but the calls I’ve been getting, it’s a little more half and half. There’s a whole generation of men coming here for help,” she said.
Both the facilitators and Segal hope that the program will serve as a launching point to another group activity called the self-guided autobiography.
It’s a much longer project that requires more structure, thought and focus on fact rather than just raw emotion, Segal said, but also comes with a great deal of therapeutic power.
“Letter writing is a great way for someone who hasn’t done any writing to get their toes wet, so to speak,” Segal said.
“Letters From the Heart” costs participants $25, or $5 for every session. Call WISE & Healthy Aging at (310) 394-9871 for more information.