“There is no denying the problems that accompany aging. But what has been universally denied is the potential. The ultimate expression of potential is creativity.” —Dr. Gene Cohen
If you’ve always dreamed of leading an artistic life but never thought it was possible, you might find inspiration in a group of seniors from Brooklyn, New York. On May 10, an exhibition of their work in collage opened at the Brooklyn Public Library, the result of a 20-week series of workshops taught by a professional artist working with the nonprofit Elders Share the Arts.
Who Knew? Making Art Is Good for Your Health
There’s been a steady growth in arts-and-culture programming for older people, likely a result of the Aging and Creative Arts Study. Sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and led by Dr. Gene Cohen, this was the first controlled study to measure the impact of professionally conducted arts programs on the health and well-being of older adults. Elders Share the Arts was one of the three organizations that provided programming for the study (the other two were the Center for Elders and Youth in the Arts in San Francisco and Washington, DC’s Levine School of Music).
The results were powerful: The groups of seniors that participated in the arts had fewer doctor visits, took less medication, suffered from fewer falls and reported better morale — along with the sense of growth and potential that comes from a steady improvement in skills.
The seniors in the control groups experienced declining health.
Painting, pottery, dance, music, poetry, drama and other creative pursuits, the study concluded, can help us retain independence and a sense of control, and may help us avoid the need for long-term care as we age.
Arts Classes in Action
We sat in on an Elders Share the Arts collage workshop in Brooklyn, where John Vasquez, whose last attempt to make art was in high school, said he’s seen his work get better and better since signing up for his first collage workshop two years ago. The classes, he said, have opened his eyes. “My favorite has been the creativity and being more aware of what’s going on in the world around me.”
While the workshop has taught technique and the formal elements of visual art — form, color, line and so on — and includes gallery and museum visits, students have also explored non-art topics to get their creative juices flowing. The work coming out of the classes — work that speaks to the political environment and participants’ personal histories — reflects the breadth of the experience as well as the opportunities offered by collage, which, artist Ricardo Osmando Francis says, is perfectly suited for this type of program (Francis was the curator of the ESTA Brooklyn show).
“You can portray interesting ideas though collage,” he said. “It can serve as an exchange of ideas, a conversation.”
Guy Lawrence-Aiossa liked the hands-on aspect of the classes and the fact that there are no time constraints: “It’s not like being on boards I participate in,” he said. But the camaraderie built during classes was the most enjoyable aspect for him. “I enjoyed partnering with other people. I learned about new cultures, aLear also there was a shared identity.”
Art-Making for You
Letting your creative juices flow, learning new practices, getting feedback from peers and teachers — these are all very good reasons to get involved in arts programs, whether its fine art or photography, dance, theater or creative writing. You might even find that taking classes can boost your confidence — it’s a good antidote to the invisibility that comes with aging.
Ros Davis saw her work in a whole different light when she saw it displayed as part of the Elders Share the Arts initiative. “I didn’t think of my work as art during classes. I thought I was making a mess, but seeing it now on display under the lights, it looks good.”
Interested? Here’s are some arts programs for seniors around the US.
- National Center for Creative Aging
Started as a internal program of Elders Share the Arts, it became an independent nonprofit in 2007. The website includes resources and a nationwide directory of senior arts programs. You can also email the nonprofit for information on local programs or for assistance with creating new programs.
- Creative Aging Network NC
This organization provides creative arts programs for seniors in North Carolina.
EngAGE provides arts, wellness, lifelong learning, community building and intergenerational programs to senior apartment communities in Southern California. (Watch “Thriving Through the Arts,” a Senior Planet talk by engAGE founder Tim Carpenter.)
- Elder Share the Arts
For more than 30 years, ESTA has works through NYC senior centers and other local organizations to provide seniors with free creative arts classes led by teaching artists in various disciplines. The award-winning organization also advocates for senior arts programming and provides models for others who want to replicate its programs.
- Lifetime Arts
Lifetime Arts supports those who are building new creative aging programs. Services include help with strategies, funding, development and implementation. The website includes a listing of affiliates that might include organizations in your city.
While only a handful of organizations focus strictly on senior arts programs, many local community centers and organizations offer senior programming as part of their services. Consider the following sources when looking for a program in your area.
- City Parks and Recreation departments. Many major cities provide services and programs for seniors through their Parks and Recreation departments. Search your local Parks and Rec website or call to find out if they have an arts program in your area.
- More and more public libraries are providing program services for seniors. In fact, the affiliate network for Lifetime Arts includes public libraries in several cities.
- Contact your local arts council, which can give you information on programs in your area or help arrange new classes by coordinating with local artists and senior centers.
While some of benefits of formal arts programs come from social interactions and the insights and encouragement of a teaching artist, you can explore your creative side on your own. Collage is a very easy art form. “It’s very accessible — no training is needed,” ESTA teaching artist Susan Fleminger says. She’s also suggested a few books that can help you get started.
- “Collage Lab” by Bee Shay (Kindle and paperback)
- “Collage Techniques” by Gerald Brommer (paperback)
- “Creative Collage Techniques” by Nita leland and Virginia Lee Williams (paperback)
You could even gather some friends and create your own art group.
Watch “Thriving Through the Arts,” a Senior Planet talk by engAGE founder Tim Carpenter.
What’s your art form?
All photos: ESTA staff. Students artists pictured, and their work, are from the SAGE-Griot Innovative Senior Center of Brooklyn, New York.