Therapy Through S.Y. Agnon Stories Helps the Elderly Face Their Realities

"There was once an old woman in Jerusalem. A handsome old woman, the likes of which you have never seen in your life. She was righteous and wise, graceful and modest. The light from her eyes was benevolent and merciful, and the wrinkles in her face were blessing and peace." With these words, S.Y. Agnon opens his novel "Tehilla." Although her two sons had died and her daughter had converted, Tehilla is described as a good and welcoming woman, as opposed to the grouchy rabbi's wife, another old woman described in the story. "Agnon said that people hold the keys to themselves," says Dr. Lilia Binah, director of the senior center in Kiryat Tivon. "You choose how you want to unlock the world, with an angry face or one that lights up, like Tehilla," she adds.

In "Tehilla," Binah finds a moral for dealing with old age. Based on this and other stories by Agnon, she has developed a method for treating the elderly that she has called "Agnotherapy." She has recently published a report on her work in the Journal of Poetry Therapy together with Dr. Keren Or-Chen of Haifa University's School of Social Work.

Binah, who holds an MA in literature, says she has loved Agnon since her youth and her familiarity with his work is what gave her the idea for Agnotherapy. After she developed the method, she applied it for a few years in the day center in Tivon, and was surprised at its success. "The experience most elderly people complain about is isolation and the feeling that they have no one to talk to. Through the stories, many of them were able to express their distress," she says.

Binah says that Agnon's stories, which she uses to help the elderly look into their souls and see old age in a positive light, are universally effective. She chose some of his novels and stories and presented them to three groups of elderly people at the center. Some she read and others she recounted from memory, but she was careful to use Agnon's language, which made some participants recall expressions they had forgotten since childhood. "I started with the short stories because the concentration span of the elderly is short," she says. "It started with 45 minutes, but sometimes we went over to an hour or two. Then I got to the novel 'Shira,' which I recounted in four meetings. Each time I reminded them of the previous chapters."

Later the participants discussed the questions that came up in the story. Some of the discussions dealt with painful questions about the relationships between men and women. For example, participants responded with mixed feelings to the character Manfred in "Shira." "Manfred is sitting next to his wife and dining with her, but at some point he goes with another women. There were people who could not understand how he could behave that way. Others identified with him. Some of these people lost family in the Holocaust, and each one of them sees his or her own story," Binah says.

Sometimes, discussion of the stories impacts participants in unexpected ways. "When we were talking about the novel 'Shira,' one of the participants was a man who had suffered a stroke and was half-paralyzed. For a long time he would not speak for days. He asked me to remind him of a term I had used about the story in the previous meeting. I said the story was not finished, and therefore it is called 'torso' - a body without head or limbs. He said to me, 'You know, that's exactly how I feel.'"