Common Ground--Sharing With Other Creative Aging Pros
All over the country, a raft of organizations dedicated to helping the Baby Boomers age well are tackling specifics on finances, aging in place, healthcare management, elder abuse, and more. My role in this set of businesses (and they are businesses) has to do with lifelong learning and creative aging. It has been clinically tested and proven that remaining engaged in the arts—or beginning a new artistic career in later years of life—is not only enormously pleasurable, but can stave off depression, social isolation, and even dementia.
I joined the National Council on Creative Aging (NCCA) in Washington DC a year ago, and last week, I participated in and presented at its second annual conference. There is something to be said for sitting in a theater with 250 people who do what you do. Yes, it’s preaching to the converted, but on the other hand, it is a forum to share concerns, innovations, and challenges and also to develop new partnerships.
Our founding father, Gene D. Cohen, M.D., Ph.D, was a renowned geriatric psychiatrist whose investigations showed that people involved with the arts as they age
• Live longer
• Require fewer doctor and hospital visits
• Require fewer medications and lower dosages
• Sustain fewer falls
• Enjoy better general physical and emotional health
One of the big pushes at the conference this year was for teaching artists to partner with researchers in projects that would ideally prove their worth to funders. Only by measuring and re-measuring our results can we show how useful we are!
We were invited for a breakfast with Senator Claire McGaskill, chairman of the Senate Committee on Aging, to share highlights of our regional programs. There will be a White House Conference on Aging this July (we have these every 10 years whether we need them or not!) and we wanted McGaskill to present President Obama and the team with our successes, which might serve as models for future national development.
In Miami, there is a new approach to dementia care, with the blooming of a village for residents where there are no locked gates. In Indiana, public parks are hosting elder art-making and poetry-reading. In Pennsylvania, the libraries are teaming with on-and offline elder arts programs. And in Utah, EngAGE is working on art and dance offerings for seniors throughout the state. Will the US government really help us out? It will probably lag behind anything we do ourselves with private funding.
Maria Genne’s KairosAlive! is a thriving enterprise, working with researchers and non-profits to spread joy around. Her Minnesota-based team covers the waterfront on bringing dance and storytelling to elders and intergenerational groups—and her opening night dance hall at the conference provided a lot more than fun. We danced to a live jazz trio, we learned new steps and ways to either partner-, circle- or free-form dance. But then Maria asked those who had grown up in the city to take the mic and talk about their experiences in dance halls of the 1950s and 60s. People just poured forth stories (“I told my mother I was on the bowling team since she wouldn't let me go dancing,” “I met my husband who was jumping up and down in his chair to the music,”) that clearly linked dance to the best moments of their lives.
My own workshop, teaching a group to sing and dance and then divide into 2 sections for a round (in only 15 minutes!), gave me the freedom to explore what sparks the desire to perform in people who have no previous performance background. My new initiative, working with medical professionals and social workers to deliver an infusion of breathing, creativity and fun into a therapeutic environment for elders and those with movement restrictions, was definitely reinforced at this meeting.
Those of us at the conference who do this work daily see that the road ahead is long and frustrating and ill-paid. We are having so much fun, and see such good results, we sometimes forget that we're in business. We have to budget our skills, our enthusiasm and our sometimes boundless energy and make sure we are reimbursed fairly for what we do. Physical therapy is a medically sanctioned practice, and it's well paid. Teaching artists offer physical, emotional, social, and spiritual therapy... and with our advocacy, perhaps we can begin to claim a place at the provider table.