Elder Arts Programs Are Thriving from California to the N.Y. Island

By Perlstein, Susan | Aging Today, November/December 2002 | Go to article overview

Elder Arts Programs Are Thriving from California to the N.Y. Island


Perlstein, Susan, Aging Today


When I began my artistic work with older adults 25 years ago, both members of my family and professionals in aging were perplexed. At that time, most Americans assumed that the last stage of life was one of inevitable decline. My belief that the arts promote self-discovery and growth, even in the last years of life, felt at that time both revolutionary and absurd. For years, I nurtured Elders Share the Arts, a community-based organization dedicated to linking generations and cultures through the arts, in a virtual vacuum.

Only in recent years, as the boomers began nearing retirement, has the concept of creative aging gained currency. Suddenly, professionals in healthcare, social work and the arts developed interest in the theory and practice of arts programming for older adults. In 1998, when the National Endowment for the Arts asked Elders Share the Arts to create a national database and serve as a resource center for the "creative aging" community, I understood how profoundly the climate had changed.

MODEL PROGRAMS

Since 1998, 1 have had the opportunity to visit outstanding model programs throughout the country, such as Stagebridge and The Dairy in California; the Naropa programs of the Boulder Council on Aging in Colorado; projects of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts in collaboration with senior centers; Roots and Branches Theater Company and the Pickney Players in New York City; and programming at the Cummer Museum in Florida. This article will detail four exemplary programs, each chosen to illuminate a distinct organizational model.

SAN FRANCISCO'S ARTWORKS

San Francisco's Institute on Aging is a multiservice organization that sponsors Artworks, an artist-in-residence program. It provides workshops and performance opportunities for more than 600 older adults in senior centers around the city. Artworks offers a variety of residencies, many promoting traditional art forms. For example, when I visited the Chinatown nursing home facility of On Lok, famous for creating the PACE model, or Programs of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly, I observed the extraordinary, culturally sensitive work of Artworks' Asian American resident artists. Elders at this site had produced exquisite Chinese brush-paintings for an exhibit at the center.

Artworks stipulated that On Lok designate wall space for this exhibit, a requirement it makes of all the senior centers where it conducts residencies. Each painting in the On Lok exhibit was professionally framed and displayed with the name of the artist, a photo and a statement of artistic vision. Such professional touches are a hallmark of Artworks. They impress upon viewers an understanding that old age is no barrier to artistic mastery.

PHILADELPHIA'S CENTER

Philadelphia's Center in the Park is one of only a few senior centers in the United States that has undertaken quality, professionally implemented arts programming. This community-based center primarily serves African American elders who live independently in Northwest Philadelphia. The center's curriculum incorporates traditional painting and sketching, pottery, collage and multimedia. Roughly 125 older artists currently participate.

Center in the Park has departed from the arts-and-crafts busywork offered in most U.S. senior centers and replaced it with a challenging, multifaceted arts curriculum. Participating elders are encouraged to explore new art forms. One example is Ed Droughn, who never had a visual art class until he became a member of the center. A musician until arthritis rendered his hands unable to play guitar, Droughn found a new artistic outlet in pottery class, where he was able to sculpt a delightful figure of a guitar player. This work, "Fast Eddie," was included in an exhibition of work by the center's artists at Philadelphia's African American Museum. …

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