National Leadership Exchange of the National Center for Creative Aging

Teresa Bonner

Old people have danced forever. We just forgot that for a time.
— Liz Lerman

In June, Ellen Michelson, president of Aroha Philanthropies, and I attended the first National Leadership Exchange of the National Center for Creative Aging in Washington, D.C. It was an extraordinary conference, filled with inspiration and information on this emerging field.

Speakers highlighted the groundbreaking work of Dr. Gene Cohen, whose research demonstrated that active participation in professionally led arts programs improves the quality of life and health of older adults. Speakers shared ongoing research studies and called for more.

The notion that older brains lack plasticity has been debunked, and we have learned that creativity grows in later life. Marc Agronin, MD, medical director for Memory Health Programs at Miami Jewish Health Systems, pointed out the inadequacy of the historic medical definition of age as a time of inevitable decline, noting that the definition does not take into account the major assets that grow as we age. By shifting the focus to the positive benefits of aging, rather than just the losses that come with it, Dr. Agronin and other leaders are redefining how we see and experience our longer lives.

Momentum is building. Across the country, new programs are providing outlets for creative expression for the dramatically growing number of people age fifty-five and older. In the Chicago area, for example, residential housing developers are creating Starbucks-inspired, beautifully designed cafés that offer reasonably priced food, gathering spaces, and classes geared toward older adults. Lifetime Arts’ program of professionally taught classes in multiple art forms is being offered in twenty-two library systems across twelve states. In Brooklyn, New York, and Portland, Oregon, members of the World Health Organization’s Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities and Communities, arts programs are central. Creative Aging festivals are showcasing remarkable art by older adults. In growing numbers, older adults are enthusiastically embracing these opportunities, writing screenplays and memoirs, painting, acting, dancing, and making music in ensembles large and small.

Universally, participants come to these programs with great seriousness about learning art forms with which they have little or no experience. They emerge from their programs reading poetry in cafés, showing their work in galleries, and performing at events in their communities. Family and friends see them anew.

Program design was a major focus of the conference, as participants shared innovative approaches that allow people to fulfill their potential for creative expression. Detailed case studies of successful arts programs for older adults revealed their complexity and diligent attention to quality and detail. Successful programs require highly qualified teaching artists who understand the process of working with older adults, and several service organizations across the country are offering programs to foster their professional development.

Throughout the conference, we were inspired by the accomplishments and the joy of older adults who actively bring the arts into their lives. A major social movement is needed to change the way society currently views older adults, the opportunities afforded them, and the expectations for their contributions to society. As with other groups who have been marginalized, we need to see the potential of older adults with new eyes. Successful programs must be seeded, documented, and shared to showcase the talent, contributions, and accomplishments of older adults. It is one critical step toward the larger goal of changing society’s expectations for our encore years.

After Henri Matisse suffered a devastating colon disease and surgery at seventy-two, he spent his next thirteen years in a wheelchair. No longer able to reach to paint the canvases for which he was then famous, he invented a new art form, creating paper cutouts painted in the brilliant colors that we most associate with his beloved work. He was enormously creative and productive until his death at eighty-five. Reviewing a major exhibition of this work at the Tate Modern in London, the Guardian wrote: “It is the lesson of a lifetime, and an inspiration to the viewer: this is how we should all be, still aspiring, still relishing the beauty of life even as we face its end.”