Part of the Aging Well Through Arts Special Report
Pour me another cup of coffee
Make it as strong as it can be
Because I have a lot of things on my mind
So pour one for you and one for me….
The song lyrics were written by professional folksinger Charlie Maguire, 66, and 15 seniors sitting around a table, some in wheelchairs. We are in a common room for the adult day care facility at Ecumen Parmly LifePointes in Chisago City, Minn. Maguire strums his guitar and blows on his harmonica, stopping to talk about the weather, trips in an RV, reel to reel tapes, a mix of song and conversation that inspires Ray, George, Nancy, Joan and others to contribute lyrics captured on a large flip chart.
The last stanza comes together.
…Keep that coffee pot handy
And the milk and sugar for the crew
So we can talk together
And we can listen, too.
What I see in a sunlit room in rural Minnesota is a small example of a much larger social shift gaining traction: The growing realization of how erroneous the widespread stereotype is that older people can’t be “creative.”
Wrong. Deeply wrong.
To a large extent, the awareness about creativity is having its biggest impact on the retired elderly. “The elders are at the top of their creativity,” says Food4Thot, a 42-year-old producer, educator and poet in the Los Angeles area. “It blows me away.” (I’ll get back to Food4Thot in a bit.)
“The elders are at the top of their creativity,” says Food4Thot, a 42-year-old producer, educator and poet. “It blows me away.”
Arts Colonies for Older Residents
Perhaps the most striking illustration of this creativity is in the low-income art colonies built by Tim Carpenter, founder of EngAGE. Carpenter worked in senior health care early in his career and became disillusioned with the medical approach to aging, which treats it as a disease. He was horrified watching residents at senior centers gluing popsicle sticks during arts and crafts period. “Getting older is actually a good thing,” says Carpenter. “But what I saw was pathetic.”
There had to be a better way, he thought.
So Carpenter joined forces with John Huskey, chief executive of Mata Housing, and developed the Burbank Senior Artists Colony in Burbank, Calif. The affordable, 200-person senior complex is designed for encouraging residents’ participation in the arts. Professionals teach classes in theater, painting, screenplay writing, short-story telling and other crafts on a semester system with the expectation that the low-income seniors will learn a craft and produce art.
Among those instructors is Oshea Luja, also known as the aforementioned poet Food4Thot, who teaches creative expression, spoken word, poetry and rap at charter schools in the Los Angeles area and offers a similar curriculum at the Burbank Senior Arts Colony. Here, his students range from age 75 to 95. They call themselves Oshea’s OWLs, for “Old White Ladies,” he laughs.
Says Carpenter: “Create a space for people to take risks, stretch and use their creativity.”
Building on Burbank’s success, Carpenter has established 37 communities mostly in southern California. The model is now expanding into Minneapolis, Minn., Portland, Ore. and Winston-Salem, N.C.
The Many Bonuses of Creativity After 60
The bonuses of becoming creative in your 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s — with help from pros — show up in measured health benefits, including fewer heart problems and less depression. An April 2015 Mayo Clinic study found that making art is tied to fewer cognitive problems as people age.
“Creativity is good for your health,” says Jim Tift, a 66-year-old gerontologist at St. Catherine’s University in St. Paul, Minn.
Another bonus from this trend: new, income-generating businesses for professional artists who are often in their 60s or older, too.
Senior centers, state arts grants, nonprofit arts groups, foundations and other creative-minded organizations these days are frequently paying older artists to teach in elderly communities. These performers and craftsmen and women tend to cobble together a living through a variety of gigs.
Take Maguire. He tours and sings in libraries, schools and other settings An agent at a local nonprofit books his songwriting workshops at senior centers. (Long-time Prairie Home Companion fans might remember hearing Maguire on the show.)
Iris Shiraishi, 61, is a classically-trained musician, music therapist and composer who loves teaching elders —including those with dementia — Taiko drumming. Shiraishi has also formed a Taiko ensemble with friends, which allows her to compose and experiment with the art form. “As you get older you really start asking the ‘why’, and start prioritizing,” she says. “I am rethinking and refocusing the next phase of my life,” she adds, taking creative risks with her art.
Age is often liberating. As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote:
For age is opportunity no less
Than youth itself, though in another dress,
And as the evening twilight fades away
The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.
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