If there's a muse for this flourishing of the arts in aging, it's Susan Perlstein, who started championing this cause more than 30 years ago. Perlstein founded the National Center for Creative Aging (NCCA) and Elders Share the Arts, and continues to provide stirring leadership. She cites the powerful therapeutic effect involvement in the arts can have. "The process of being able to share your stories and transform them into art is a deeply healing process."
Perlstein's vision is embodied today in the work of NCCA, led by a champion and scholar in the field, Gay Hanna, PhD, MFA. "We help people find (or start) an arts and aging program in their community, and provide the evidence-base for the strong connections between the arts, lifelong learning, and health," she says.
Hanna was the lead author of the most visionary document in the field, The Arts and Human Development: Framing a National Research Agenda for the Arts, Lifelong Learning, and Individual Well-Being, published by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Within the federal government, diverse agencies are being stimulated to recognize and integrate the arts into their programs, largely due to effective advocacy by dedicated professional staff like Kathy Sykes, Senior Advisor on Aging and Sustainability at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Private funders, too, are beginning to provide the wherewithal to make such programs available more widely. The MetLife Foundation gives awards each year to outstanding programs throughout the country, as well as technical assistance grants for newcomers to the field.
New York City has devoted $1 million to connecting 57 of the city's arts and cultural organizations with its 150 senior centers. Through the city's Department for the Aging, funds have been recently awarded for the development of innovative creative arts programs at eight designated senior centers in each of the city's boroughs, providing fresh kinds of community outreach.
On New York's lower East Side, The Creative Center at University Settlement, under the dedicated leadership of director Robin Glazer, joined forces last year with a vibrant creative community (both national and local) in developing, coordinating, and replicating programs dedicated to bringing the creative arts experience — literary, visual, and performing — to an ever-growing population of people through all stages of their lives.
Another staunch champion of creative aging is Joan Jeffri, founder and director of the Research Center for Arts and Culture, housed within NCCA. She has long studied older performing artists and shown how their resilience can serve as inspiration for people of all ages. Her extensive research is reported in her publications Still Kicking and Above Ground, which address the critical need for aging professional artists to be "supported and integrated within their communities." As one of her artists says, "Discrimination against age is the younger generation's loss."
There is no shortage of talented and highly-trained professional artists willing and eager to work with a broad consumer population, including elders. Agencies and organizations wishing to engage teaching artists can find them through the Creative Aging Mapping project, an invaluable online roster of more than 400 artists nationwide, created and maintained by Lifetime Arts as a continuously expanding online resource.
"Projects like these are pushing new frontiers in the arts and in the art of aging well," says Alvin H. Reiss, one of the nation's leading experts on arts management and himself an honored member of the Beautiful Minds program, which celebrates creative elders. "Involvement in the arts is adding joy and significance to our longer lives."
Sue and Ron are members of the University Seminar on Innovation in Education at Columbia University, and can be reached at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.