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Creative Aging - Part 1 - Transforming the Lives of Older Americans

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Comedy Tonight © www.stagebridge.org
Comedy Tonight © www.stagebridge.org
Updated August 25, 2012
"It is such a gift to have these workshops. At this time in life when there is so much loss – to have new fire!" — Patricia Hasely

Patricia Hasely is a 79-year-old participant in a writer's workshop conducted by Rodlyn Douglas at the Goddard Riverside Community Center in New York City, sponsored by Poets and Writers.

Hasely and Douglas are part of a burgeoning movement that is enriching the lengthened lives of so many Americans. These older adults are not just enjoying the arts as spectators, they are raising their voices in song, creating dances, telling their stories, improvising theater pieces, and creating paintings and sculptures.

Across the country, from New York to Bethesda to Minneapolis to Oakland, accomplished professional artists are finding inspiration and gratification in bringing their muses to new audiences. Here's a sampling:

  • Teaching artist Anthony Hyatt calls his creative consultancy in Bethesda, Maryland, "Moving Beauty," and that's just what he conjures up utilizing his highly imaginative talents to inspire groups of seniors in music and dance. He is co-director of Quicksilver, a senior citizen improv company under the auspices of the non-profit Arts for the Aging, which offers free workshops in DC-area senior centers and nursing homes.
  • In New York public spaces like Times Square, The Highline, and Washington Square at the foot of Fifth Avenue, people of all ages, backgrounds, and heritages perform together under the dynamic direction of Naomi Goldberg Haas. Her "Dances for a Variable Population" creates remarkable programs that "make the arts and culture become tools for change, enabling immigrant and older populations — and everyone — to thrive." Haas' choreography brilliantly combines formal dance technique with everyday gesture.
  • "Let's write a poem together!" invites poet Gary Glazner at the opening of one of his workshops for people with Alzheimer's. "What did your first kiss feel like?" "What sound did your lips make?" Glazner founded and directs the Alzheimer's Poetry Project, which involves people with Alzheimer's and their caregivers in creating, reading, and relishing poems together. The APP has held more than 300 programs at 75 facilities in 14 states, reaching 9,500 patients and 800 healthcare workers and family members.
  • Dancer Maria Genne was honored for "transforming lives through movement and story" at this year's annual conference of the American Society for Aging. She directs Dancing Heart: Vital Caregivers Moving in Community at the Kairos Dance Theatre of Minneapolis. At the 2012 Healthy Environments Across Generations Conference in NYC, she took conferees across the street into Central Park where they connected with nature as they explored the physical, cognitive, and social benefits of dance and story participation.
  • Picture a couple in their 80s: she sports a Groucho mustache/nose/eyeglass get-up, and he's got an enormous rose between his teeth! That's the photo on the brochure for the StageBridge Senior Theater Company in Oakland, California. Stuart Kandell, whose doctorate is in intergenerational studies, founded this oldest senior theater company, which now offers classes in theater, dance, and storytelling.

Such programs challenge our stereotypical images of aging, and may even suggest potent new ways to address the health care issues of older Americans. The Creativity and Aging Study, a milestone investigation of 166 people older than 65 in Washington, D.C., measured the impact of professional artist-conducted cultural programs on the physical health, mental health, and social well-being of older participants. It found a "positive impact on overall health, number of doctor visits, medication use, falls, loneliness, morale, and activities [constituting] a reduction of risk factors driving the need for long-term care."

Some of the nation's top arts organizations and institutions are enlisting in this movement pioneered by these innovative individuals. The Museum of Modern Art in New York has developed a major program to make art accessible to people with dementia, including Alzheimer's disease, and their caregivers.

In Brooklyn, the Mark Morris Dance Group conducts Dance for PD, in which dancer-artist David Leventhal and his team empower people with Parkinson’s disease to move more fully by engaging them in specialized dance classes with live music.

More young people are getting involved, with enriching results. Utilizing intergenerational programming, they join with elders and professional artists to create together. A national leader is Elders Share the Arts (ESTA). Director Jennie Smith-Peers says, "Our projects use reminiscence and oral history as a basis for artistic expression, which builds community and sometimes impels social change. Each of our projects culminates in a final celebration in which everyone must have a role."

Read about how are artists and older adults are finding each other in Creative Aging - Part 2: Who's the Muse of Creative Aging?

Sue and Ron are members of the University Seminar on Innovation in Education at Columbia University, and can be reached at sue.salko@yahoo.com or grossassoc@aol.com.

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