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Engaging and Supporting Creativity with Elders

Two people smile and sit at a table together. One of them holds a cut out paper hand up to their hand.
Photo Credit: Bailey Veskrna, Prairie Feather Photography
Mini art lesson at Silver Threads Assisted Living in Gregory, SD. Photo by Bailey Veskrna, Prairie Feather Photography. Courtesy of Gregory Horizons.

Older adults and their care partners seek outlets for creativity and learning, which arts and culture organizations can provide by rethinking programming options. This article sparks ideas to creatively engage elders in your community.

Humans are creative by nature. Our innate desire to create comes from a place of curiosity, playfulness, and the desire to learn more. This is why learning, regardless of age, physical, or cognitive abilities, has no expiration date. Lifelong learning can be enriching and rewarding, especially as we enter our later years.

However, many arts and culture organizations are not built to provide creative learning opportunities for the growing numbers of older adults and their care partners in both rural and urban communities. As of 2010, people over 65 are 16% of the US population (54 million people). By 2040, 21% of the US population will be people over 65. As the population of older adults grows, so does the need for dynamic and tailored programming.

Here’s the good news! Many arts and culture organizations do offer arts programming for youth and it only takes a few simple steps to expand those programs to include older people. Adapting existing youth programs for aging adults has multiple benefits, from healing generational rifts fostered by structural ageism to adding cultural and generational context for both age groups. Alternatively, organizations can design stand-alone programming for older adults that fosters social connections, skill-building, and general well-being that is tailored to the needs, interests, and abilities of aging adults.

This resource aims to spark ideas and support efforts to offer programming that creatively engages elders in your community. Let’s dig in.

Design For “Us” Not “Them”

If your organization is contemplating purposefully designing programs to engage older adults, a great question to start with is “what programming would you want as an older adult?” Because in aging, there is no us and them. There is only us, and we are all aging. Consider how a program would benefit you in the long run, then use that as your starting place for setting up a programming infrastructure that is meaningful and human-centered.

From there, consider the specific group of elders you aim to engage and customize the program based on what is needed within your audience’s interests with a consideration for cultural differences. Older adults are not a generic group – they are a growing and diverse demographic.

It’s important to check your own preconceptions about aging and disability. Ageism runs deep and often undetected even among those who work hard to achieve equity in race, gender, class, and sexuality. Seeing older people as a reserve of untapped potential rather than a burden helps arts organizations understand the benefits of offering a wide array of programming tailored to older adults. It also focuses your eye on growth and learning.

Try it yourself

Take a scan of your organization’s existing programming. Look at your website and the story you tell about engagement in the arts. Are there images of older people? What story are you implicitly telling about who your organization welcomes? Might you subconsciously be reinforcing stereotypes about aging in your promotional materials? Or is the absence of older people telling a story in itself?

Learn more

A mother and daughter sit at a kitchen table together, cast in the light from the kitchen window. They're looking at a book together and talking.
Photo Credit: Gary Harwood

Identify and Engage Your Target Group

The best programs begin by specifically identifying which segment of older adults you want to engage and how you want to engage with them. You can take this a step further by actually gathering a group of advisors from that segment to guide your choices. For example, your organization might aim to support people with cognitive challenges like dementia, as well as their caregivers. Or you might desire to engage lower income older adults in your community who could benefit from the social engagement and learning opportunities that a class structure provides.

Assembling an advisory group can help you address one of the most common questions: What words should we use? Seniors? Elders? Older adults? The answer is easy! Ask them. Geographic, generational, and cultural differences will drive different answers to this question. For example, some communities bristle at the word “senior.” Also, for intergenerational programming, the word “senior” might confuse older adults with soon-to-be high school graduates.

When considering your target group, you’ll also want to decide whether your programming will support people who want to identify or work as professional artists. Rigorous training programs specifically designed to be inclusive of older adults prepare students for professional work, be it as actors or performers, musicians, or visual artists. Life-long learning-oriented programming will draw older adults interested in the challenge of learning new things and in the social bonding such programs tend to foster.

Find Local Support

After considering your target group, then it’s time to identify partners in your area who can help you reach the audience you are aiming for. Many local aging services include an Aging and Disability Resource Center, an organization supporting people living with dementia, senior centers, and a regionally focused Area Agency on Aging. There might even be a network of memory cafes informal groups that meet regularly to support people with dementia living in your community. While people tend to associate aging with care homes (assisted or skilled care), only 6.5% of older adults live in care settings. While up to 37% of older adults will spend a year in a care home, at any given moment the vast majority of elders live in the broader community. Learn more about aging services structures here.

Consider Accessibility

As with any programming, your offerings will need to be designed to support a range of abilities. The most common challenges for older adults are mobility and hearing. Memory and concentration are common hurdles as well. The American Library Association’s guide for engaging older adults has a particularly helpful summary on how to ensure programming is accessible for people with auditory, visual, and mobility issues.

The biggest mistake to avoid is assuming that older adults cannot learn, or that working with them is just like working with children. This is simply not true, especially for programs that target groups with disabilities such as dementia. Below is a list of workshop structure elements that can foster learning and meaningful engagement for people living with dementia. (Bonus: You’ll notice that these guidelines are also a good way to structure any creative workshop!)

  • Establish a ritual, a pattern of events that you follow each time
  • Open the sessions with a meditative activity to create a calm environment (like shared breathing)
  • Select an environment with minimal distractions (sounds, movements)
  • Minimize the number of steps in a creative activity
  • Avoid slang and use pictorial descriptions of steps to reinforce instructions
  • Invite a range of responses to allow for different strengths and capacities (movement, sound, words, visual)
  • Shift from correcting or editing toward affirming and deepening

Bringing Programs to Elders

The COVID-19 pandemic saw a burst of creativity in how arts venues might reach elders remotely when in-person programming wasn’t possible. Theatre companies offered virtual classes in improvisation or storytelling. Music venues offered concerts or choir participation by Zoom. Cheyenne Mize, a musician and Fellow at the Global Brain Health Institute, piloted a sing-along podcast designed for elders with memory loss living at home.

Although data tells us that the digital divide is lessening, not all older adults have access to broadband, or even wi-fi and computers. The telephone is still powerful technology, accessible by nearly everyone. In Milwaukee, TimeSlips trained artists to use “Beautiful Questions” in its Tele-Stories program to prompt story-shaping sessions by phone.

Another way that organizations reached out to older adults was through integrated efforts. Multi-arts venues packaged and distributed kits to engage elders at home. If your organization aims to provide kits, consider creating a feedback loop to maximize engagement. A feedback loop would distribute kits to elders, gather their artistic output, build on it in collaboration with artists, and redistribute the final product to the elders living at home while celebrating their co-creative product. Artists with TimeSlips’ “Beautiful Questions” project for example, created a short video that integrated the elders’ responses and shared it online and in partnership with the local PBS station.

In another example designed to reduce loneliness and isolation, the Central Vermont Council on Aging and the Vermont Council on the Arts partnered to provide 160 Creative Care Kits to elders in their region. Watercolor supplies and instructions for making greeting cards are a simple way to bring creativity into the home. Imagine translating elements of educational guides that many performing venues create for community engagement into exercises and supplies that could be shared in kit form and inviting responses in a feedback loop (by phone, web, or mail) that could be exhibited back to the larger community. These types of experiences create a sense of belonging and greater purpose for everyone involved.

The artist-in-residence model is taking hold in care settings and is providing opportunities for arts organizations to go beyond passive entertainment to engagement and co-creation. In 2018, TimeSlips worked with a team of artists and 12 rural nursing homes across Kentucky to engage staff and residents in reimagining the story of Peter Pan. Through several residencies and a series of “Creative Challenges” and workshops, they shaped and produced an immersive theatre piece in which local and national artists, staff, and residents invited an audience into Wendy’s Neverland. You can find funding for projects like this through grants from a combination of sources, from aging services to traditional arts funds (for example, NEA or MAP).

Bringing Elders to Your Programs

Transportation is one of the biggest challenges for program participation, but bringing elders to your site solves that problem beautifully! It also offers powerful benefits like building social networks and social capital. You’ll find clever solutions to transportation challenges in Arts and Older Americans, a report by the NEA from 2011. Their ideas for addressing barriers to participation still hold true.

Test Before Launching

Once you identify your target audience and draft a program design, invite your advisors to pilot the experience in a human-centered design process. This testing experience will allow you to proactively address any changes before you launch your program. For example, do people need a quieter surrounding? Do they need portable stools for the walk to the stage, classroom, or gallery? Is there easy access to bathrooms for caregivers? What time of day works best for this group? Can you provide coffee for socializing after the workshop to maximize the networking benefit?

Having trouble finding a test group? Organizations like The SPARK! Alliance can help. The SPARK! Alliance is a coalition of cultural organizations that offer models for museums and cultural institutions wanting to engage older adults with memory loss and their care partners. Their programming often entwines artmaking with art experiences over a series of meetings. Helping to test your program provides a respite from the four walls of their home and much needed change for meaningful social engagement. Find a list of SPARK! programs near you.

Keep Quality at the Heart of Your Program

Artistic excellence should always be a top priority. Period. Low expectations for the artistic capacity of older adults simply pours fuel on the fire of ageism already blazing in American culture.

Co-creation with older adults with disabilities and artists should aspire to the profound. Working to identify the strengths of the participants enables artists and facilitators to build on them. It might be choral movement or sound created in call and response, enabling participants with memory loss to participate as equals and without stigma. At the close of an immersive arts project with older adults, The Penelope Project, the evaluator asked a nursing home resident if she enjoyed being in the project. “Oh yes,” she said. “It is the last important thing I will do.” Learn more about this experience here.

Consider Intergenerational Co-Creation

If your organization already offers programming for young people, consider expanding it to collaborate with older adults. Creating opportunities for young people to develop positive views of their own aging can literally extend their lives. Research has shown that people who internalize negative views of aging are likely to live 7.5 years less than those with positive views of aging. Read more about this research.

Too often, intergenerational projects are designed as one generation helping the other. Young people helping older people access technology or writing their life stories, for example, or older people mentoring children in reading. But co-creation, in which both generations work together as equals to shape something new, can yield both intense bonding experiences as well as meaningful art.

Young people can be trained to facilitate art and storytelling experiences for older adults with cognitive challenges. Both Opening Minds Through Art (OMA) and TimeSlips have established and evidence-based service-learning facilitation training programs. Learn more about OMA.

Everyone should have the opportunity for lifelong learning through the arts, from childhood through old age.


Resources and Models

  • Lifetime Arts

    Lifetime Arts aims to enhance the lives of older adults through arts education. Through training and coaching, they support individual and organizational efforts to design and deliver creative aging programming sustainably based on the arts education model – that is student-centered, participatory, sequential, skills-based, and focused on fostering social engagement.

  • TimeSlips

    TimeSlips’ mission is to bring meaning and joy all the way to the end of life by helping to infuse creative engagement techniques into any system that touches the lives of older adults. TimeSlips offers training, coaching, and resources for organizations to learn to build community through creative programming that is meaningful, inclusive, and rigorous in its design. They have worked with a wide range of places, including skilled care settings, museums, libraries, meal delivery programs, and college and high school service learning programs.

  • Giving Voice Chorus

    Giving Voice Chorus has inspired and guided dozens of organizations to host choirs for people with Alzheimer’s and their care partners. In so doing, they bring joy, well-being and purpose to participants and attendees alike.