Honor. Community. Jewish Values.

How to Approach Creative Programming for Older Adults

Almost everyone can relate to the internal “boost” of pride or satisfaction we feel when we create something we are proud of. This feeling is supported by studies that show how creative expression, especially as an older adult, improves overall physical and emotional well-being. With this improvement in mind, organizations and individuals across the country are working to enhance accessibility in the arts for older citizens in their communities.

Unfortunately, in an attempt to meet the unique needs of the aging population, program creators often offer arts opportunities that might otherwise be found lining the halls of elementary schools. While coloring books and googly-eyed foam pumpkins may be genuinely fulfilling for some older adults, others may find this artwork frustrating and feel disrespected and/or infantilized.

Grace Trautman, Intergenerational Program Coordinator at Kavod Senior Life, is helping Denver programmers think differently about art and aging. She is a trained facilitator of the Opening Minds through Arts (OMA) program, a national art-making program for people with cognitive decline that utilizes best practices and an intergenerational approach. Grace recently delivered a workshop at Think 360 Arts (a Denver nonprofit promoting arts as a learning tool) to share with other arts educators how to have a successful arts program. Grace emphasized the importance of three specific concepts when working with older adults: respect, creativity, and autonomy.

Concept #1: Respect
Respect is a crucial component of any successful arts program for older individuals. Rather than creating a program for “patients,” “participants,” “residents,” “seniors” or even “older adults,” they should be thought of as artists. Once considered artists, both older adults and their artwork are treated with the same dignity and five-star service as any other artist in the community. At Kavod, Grace ensures the use of high-quality materials; she titles and frames the artists’ work, then displays it in a culminating gallery show. Grace also teaches artistic concepts during the art-making process so both artists and any companions or volunteers have a shared vocabulary to critique their work beyond basic positive and negative reactions. All of these practices are ways to show artists that the time, energy, and care that they put in to their work is valued… and respected.

Concept #2: Creativity
Grace encourages offering creative opportunities that are complex looking, but not complicated to create based on the skills, abilities, and cognition levels of participants.  She also encourages programmers to consider the end result – is it something the artist would truly be proud of? Will each artist have the opportunity to make something unique? Kavod’s visual art class, which follows the principles of the OMA concept, focuses on abstract painting. Grace provides very broad instructions to participants, which are simply meant to act as ways to make a blank page more approachable. She also offers a multitude of different materials which provides opportunity for depth, layering, and texture, making the project appear complex even if using simple techniques. These techniques allow participants to create art that has a focus, is accessible for various abilities and allows for individuality.

Concept #3: Autonomy
A successful arts program will allow space for artists to make their own choices. At Kavod, straying from the instructions is celebrated; participants are encouraged that there is no right or wrong in art. Art makers are in charge of “what good looks like” – they are the keepers of their canvas.

While Grace’s experience is limited to the visual arts classes at Kavod’s assisted living community, she has seen how these basic principles can be adapted to any art form or population. She continues to incorporate these principles in the ongoing OMA arts program at Kavod, a grant-funded venture which runs for six weeks at a time and pairs young adults from the community with Kavod Assisted Living residents. The next culminating art show will be held on Monday, November 18th from 6 – 7:30pm in the Elaine Wolf Dining Room at the main entrance of Kavod Senior Life. All are welcome to come celebrate the accomplishments of resident artists and see the results of this powerful, successful program.