This issue of NASAA's Partners publication is the first in a series on state arts agency projects assisted by the National Endowment for the Arts' Challenge America program.
He didn't think of himself as a writer. In fact, he'd never written a poem in his life. But at the gentle urging of a professional poet, the old man took an idea—the dying pear tree outside his window—and fashioned it into a moving meditation on aging. Word about the poem got around the Massachusetts town. After he'd been urged to do a public reading, people began to refer to him as "the poet."
This man, in his mid-80s, had discovered the power of the arts—to help make sense of life, and to add vitality to the present moment. He is not alone. Thanks to a groundbreaking program called the Elder Arts Initiative, seniors across the state of Massachusetts are tapping their creative powers to produce original artworks filled with insight, emotion and eloquence.
Photo: Michael Zide
The program has been conducted in many different settings using various art forms. With help from a writer, a group of retired men and women in Petersham, Massachusetts, published a book of writings drawn from their life experiences. An artist helped residents of a Holyoke nursing home construct a felt quilt composed of scenes from their lives. Under a musician's guidance, a group of Dorchester seniors released a CD of their songs and stories called "Life Is What You Make It." Artists have even worked with Alzheimer's patients, helping them recapture memories and craft them into poems.
The Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC) launched the program in 1997, in partnership with the Executive Office of Elder Affairs, the Massachusetts Extended Care Federation (an association of nursing homes) and local councils on aging. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has also been a key player, providing funds to the Massachusetts Cultural Council through the NEA's Challenge America program, a new federal initiative designed to "strengthen families, communities and our nation through the arts."
In Massachusetts, about one in eight people is over the age of 65. But the arts experiences offered in senior facilities are often passive in nature—with the arts viewed more as a form of entertainment than as an opportunity for engagement, according to Mary Kelley, executive director of the MCC. Senior centers might bus clients to plays or museums, and nursing homes might bring in musical groups to sing songs or play instruments. "But we find that typically, people are not creating art with elders; they're performing for them," she explains.
Residents of Hale House in Boston participate in a creative movement and storytelling program with artist Jenney Smith.
Photo: Jim Fossett
It is well known that people at the other end of the age spectrum—children and teens—benefit from participatory arts experiences, enhancing their communication skills and self-esteem. So MCC staff began to wonder: If the arts can work for kids, why not for seniors? "Our seniors have lived through momentous events—world wars and the Depression—and witnessed enormous changes over the course of their lifetimes," explains Paula Rais, Elder Arts Initiative program manager. If those personal experiences could be transformed into art, wasn't it possible that seniors could derive some of the same benefits the youngsters had received?
Using Artists to Engage Elders' Creativity
When state arts agencies perceive a need, one typical response is to establish a grant program to address it. But the MCC couldn't fund arts experiences for seniors living in various settings because, according to Kelley, "No one was doing that work."
Elder Arts Initiative Benefits
Engages elders in the pleasure of creating.
Allows elders to transfer their wisdom and experience to younger generations.
Increases social interaction and reduces isolation.
Gives elders an opportunity to look at their lives in a different way.
Builds a sense of purpose.
Can improve physical health.
The MCC staff consulted with agencies involved in senior issues, as well as with the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, an organization based in Takoma Park, Maryland, that had done pioneering work on participatory arts experiences with seniors. Out of these conversations emerged the idea of creating an intensive training program to teach artists and health care professionals how to engage seniors in the artistic process.
The council decided to open the program to two types of participants: artists from a range of disciplines interested in working with elders, and senior-service providers—people like activity and program directors from senior centers, retirement communities and nursing homes. Service providers were included to allow them to see firsthand what a difference the arts could make and to encourage caregivers to form collaborations with artists.
In the intensive training sessions—which consist of six day-long sessions spread over a six-month period—participants learn how to elicit memories, stories and images from seniors and then how to transform that raw material into original artworks such as plays, dances, songs, poems or paintings. The training sessions include both theory and hands-on experience working with seniors in varied settings. After participants have completed the initial training, they may undertake a "mentored project"—a supervised eight-week residency to work with a group of seniors. The MCC provides minigrants to artists to help support the residency.
To date, the Elder Arts Initiative has trained about 100 artists and 100 service providers and reached more than 1,000 seniors in 80 different settings across the state.
Enhanced Self-Esteem, Reduced Isolation
For anyone participating in the process of making art, there is the inherent pleasure of the creative act—the surprise and delight that comes from making something out of "nothing." But for seniors, that activity may be especially meaningful because it comes at a time in their life or in a setting like a nursing home where people may feel their options are reduced and their powers diminishing, according to Gail Thomas, a writer who has worked with a number of Elder Arts Initiative projects. "Art has the power to transform experience at any age and open new doors," she observes.
Music is woven into "A Quilt in Time," an Elder Arts Initiative program at Mont Marie Health Care Center in Holyoke, MA.
Photo: Jim Fossett
Members of Thomas's Petersham writing group—people who are in their seventies and eighties—are proud of the fact that they've published a compilation of their writing, with another volume in the works. In addition, as participants have shared their writing with one another, their connections have deepened. "I find I know each of the members of the group a lot better because of the type of sharing that goes on, and I have new respect for them," says John LePoer, a member of the group.
Because some of the Elder Arts Initiative projects have included young people, the programs also have encouraged sharing across generations—a process that often has been lost with the breakdown of the extended family. Eva Krumsiek, a resident at Providence Place, a retirement community in Holyoke, was involved in an intergenerational project with a local Girls Inc. chapter in which participants worked together to create songs and movement pieces. "You had to use your imagination, and mine was a little rusty," Krumsiek observes. But when you work together, she adds, "it's surprising what you can come up with."
The Elder Arts Initiative has even undertaken projects with Alzheimer's patients, who respond to art's ability to tap into deep memories and images. Elaine Cat, activity director for the Mont Marie Health Care Center in Holyoke, recalls a writing project for people with dementia. One of the women was agitated and often confused. Yet, when an artist prompted participants to recall favorite sounds, the woman—to everyone's surprise—wrote a beautifully lucid poem:
I love the sound of bluebirds and goldfinches
and every winged thing
that fills the day with sound.
In addition to their value to participants, the seniors' writing, painting, plays and songs help health service providers to view elderly residents in a broader light, Cat explains. These artistic products help remind health care staff that the residents aren't simply people who need care or entertainment, but that "they're people who have beautiful gifts to share."
National Endowment for the Arts Challenge America funding for this initiative is combined with major support from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. The NEA also provided funds through its Artists and Communities millennium program.
Congress appropriated $7 million to launch Challenge America in 2001, with 40 percent of those funds available to state and regional arts agencies to support grassroots activities that address the program's goals. That amount was increased to $17 million for 2002.
Editors: Kimber Craine and Jill Hauser Design: Benson Design
Carol Dana is a freelance writer and producer. She was formerly editor of the Arts & Culture Funding Report, and authored a previous issue of Partners, "Using the Arts to Transform Young Lives."
Partners is published in cooperation with the National Endowment for the Arts. The work of NASAA and of state arts agencies is supported and strengthened in many ways through funding and programming partnerships with the Endowment.