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Intergenerational Arts Programs Work. We Need More of Them.

Gordon Skinner March 5, 2020

America fears aging. Older adults often feel marginalized, as if their voices are not heard or valued. They are often lonely.

Since 2010, the population of lonely people over age 45 has grown by 5 million, reaching 47.8 million, according to AARP. This population is reaching retirement age, yet unable to retire for financial reasons. Meanwhile, the world is valuing social media presence more than life experience; this population contends with ageism. Relationships decline due to loss of employment, death or relocation of family and friends. Board games, medication, or even the occasional FaceTime with their children or grandchildren do not solve the problem of a lack of human connection. 

Research has shown that when older and younger people come together in participatory arts programs, their physical, mental and social health improves.

With finite public resources and growing populations of both disadvantaged youth and elders, public policy tends to define these as two competing groups. Instead, we could think about how each can serve the other through the arts.

A History of Arts-Based Programs

This is not a new idea. In 1979, New York City artist and educator Susan Perlstein founded Elders Share the Arts. The initiative was the first of its kind to address the needs of our aging populations through the arts and intergenerational interactions between seniors and adolescents. Perlstein went on to be a founding member of the National Center for Creative Aging, which serves as an advocacy, education, and resource hub. The center trained thousands of healthcare and social service professionals as well as artists working with elders and arts.

In the decades that followed, community-based arts programs flourished across the country. Among those include Stage Bridge Theatre in Oakland, California, which offers award-winning Creative Aging programs for adults over 50 yrs. For those with Alzheimer’s, Stage Bridge uses a program called TimeSlips: a photograph kick-starts discussion, inspiring seniors to focus on telling stories through imagination rather than relying on memories and facts.

Kairos Alive!, based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, transforms lives through dance and story with older adults in independent, assisted, and long-term care living situations. Their Dancing Heart program offers creative dance and storytelling in long-term care facilities. The program triggers memories from music and allows people to create new ones by learning new songs and retelling each other’s stories.

The Teachers and Writers Collaborative in Brooklyn, NY, launched a program in schools and seniors centers in which participants joined together to create a living history project with themes addressing holocaust survivors, the difficulties of growing up in a polarizing society, and the immigrant experience of “what do you take with you, what do you leave behind?” This culminated in a mural depicting the diverse neighborhood.

The Power of Art to Create Impact

These programs have a positive impact because they create community and foster empathy. Young people view seniors through a new lens and treat them as human beings with their own experiences and perspectives.

Dance, in particular, is associated with a lower risk of dementia. Researchers at Einstein College of Medicine went on to find a correlation between dance and improved physical functioning contributing to fall prevention.

The arts are often seen as something which exist outside of a person, and therefore something which is beyond the capacity or capabilities of an individual to create. But art is really about a person’s creative ability to express themselves. The benefit lies within the process of creating and participating in artistic expressions.

As an arts educator in New York, I have seen the power of creativity to bring together diverse groups of adolescents and seniors. In the Fall of ’94 while working as a theatre teaching artist for Elders Share The Arts, we staged a dramatic performance created by a group of twelve teenagers and six seniors. The group performed the play at New York’s famed Cooper Union. This past spring, I convened a group of four high school students who are members of the documentary club at City Lore with a group of four seniors who are a part of the Pearls of Wisdom storytelling group. The students were sixteen; the seniors average age was 90. The group interviewed one another about the issues affecting them, their goals and challenges, and how they stood up to obstacles.

Arts immersion awakens us to a more active, responsible, mode of pursuing our human quest. The arts heighten our ability to observe our relationship our lives and surroundings. 

While these programs exist in major cities, more are needed. In the United States, individuals over age 60 outnumber individuals 18 years and younger. This number will double in the next 30 years. Approximately 15% of adults aged 60 and over suffer from a mental health disorder: depression and loneliness are among the leading cause of death.

Arts programs offer a non-pharmaceutical intervention to improve the quality of life for the aging population. Investing more in these cost-effective community-building programs serves everyone. Exposure to the arts changes an individual, and individuals can change society for the benefit of all.

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Gordon Skinner

Gordon Skinner is a documentary filmmaker, a member of the Teaching Artist Community of Teachers College/Columbia University, and an Encore public voices fellow with The OpEd Project.

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