The Wonders of Wood

Michael Gordon MD, MSc, FRCPC is a geriatrician working at Baycrest Health Science System. He is medical program director of the palliative care program, co-head of the clinical ethics program and a professor of Medicine at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Late Stage Dementia, Promoting Compassion, Comfort and Care; Moments that Matter: Cases in Ethical Eldercare, Brooklyn Beginnings: A Geriatrician's Odyssey, and Parenting Your Parents.


Upon my return from a medical conference in Israel, as I entered the living room, I could see the small oak side table my wife e-mailed me about while I was away. It was placed in front of the gas fireplace, next to my favorite “relax” chair and was the perfect color and size to fit there, waiting for a cup of coffee, a portable phone, and the controller for the small stereo next to it. I marvelled at the shape and fine workmanship reflecting that even after less than one term in a college course in industrial woodworking my son, Eytan, whose primary love is playing the electric guitar with his heavy metal music band. His taking a college course in woodworking was part of his desire to have some other skills beyond music for the future and working with wood has always been attractive to him.

Of the many reasons I was so delighted with his handiwork was the associations I had with woodworking. I attended New York’s unique Brooklyn Technical High School because during my early teenage years I wanted to be an engineer like my late father. I loved building and fixing things and had ability in math and physics it seemed a natural career path. “Tech” as the school was called by the students was a fantastic educational experience. Beyond a vigorous general curriculum we averaged an extra two hours a day of technical skills and processes, which ranged from working with the various metals and wood. I recall vividly my woodworking teacher who was demonstrating how to use a chisel properly. It was from him I learned that a sharp tool is much safer than a dull one as you do not have to apply as much pressure, which can lead to poor tool control. I recall how after he chiselled a piece of wood and before it was actually sanded he let us all feel the surface and said something that then would have been considered a bit riskee, “see, smooth as a baby’s aaaarm”, which we all sniggered, knowing what “a” word he really meant.

I changed career plans at the end of high school and decided on medicine, which was the perfect choice for me. I have however always maintained my love and respect for working with wood. When I did my military service in Israel I had access to a large “hobby shop,” which had all the woodworking machines and tools I learned to use at “Tech." With ample supplies of rough wood from the crates in which new General Electric airplane engines were shipped to replace original French engines in reconfigured old French fighter planes I was able to build kitchen shelving and cabinets and furniture for our future Jerusalem apartment.

I once saw a house for sale in which the husband as part of his retirement project renovated it using hand turned and carved and stained wood wherever there was an opportunity to do so. The project, according to his wife, kept him sane, healthy, and active for the 15 years since his retirement.

His experiences with woodworking are echoed by many patients who have pursued “hobbies” or “pastimes” from their younger years and use them as a focus of their creativity to give meaning and passion to their post-retirement years. There is a robust literature on the place of woodworking in long-term care, where special programs and projects can be devised that are safe and appropriate even for those living with dementia, especially if they have had experience working with wood in the past. Whether it is painting, ceramics, knitting, quilting, photography or woodworking, the satisfaction of working with one’s hands and brain is wonderful for the mind and the soul. If it was once part of one’s world, it can be reclaimed to enhance life and its enjoyments. Wood resonates with me for its historical meaning in my life as well as for its marvelous textures and smells. That experience is likely to be true for many elders, including those living with cognitive impairment and dementia. Long-term care facilities might do well to explore whether such programs would be welcomed by some of their residents.


This blog was republished with permission from HealthPlexus. It was originally published on May 21, 2013, on HealthPlexus.