Breaking the Mold About Getting Old: How Creative Aging Can Enrich Lives & Debunk Myths About Older Adults by Mary Crescenzo

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If those of us who are over fifty-something are called, “Seniors,” then why aren’t twenty-somethings called, “Juniors”? If we are considered elderly, then why aren’t those on the other side of the age spectrum called, “Youngerly”? The new term that is slowly but surely replacing “Senior” is “Older Adult,” because that is what we are. If you Google “grandmother or older woman clip art” you will find multiple images of a hunched, shriveled woman with her hair in a bun, wearing a floor-length dress with a shawl, and wearing tiny wire-framed glasses while sitting in a rocking chair. This image is sometimes accompanied by an older adult man in an easy chair reading a book next to a female image often referred to as, Granny. We’ve been labeled as suckers and easy prey; grouchy; depressed due to retirement; unable to learn anything new; and living with declining brain power. Of course, these notions are clearly stereotypical caricatures of who we are.  

Still, advertisers, government and public funding sources, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, filmmakers, and even cartoons, children, and relatives, often define us in a similar way. We are thought of as quiet, invisible, un-opinionated leftovers from a bygone era. Most of us know this isn’t true, but who’s paying attention to what we know and think? Who’s addressing our specific needs for quality creative and social engagement?

There are examples that illustrate exceptions to this. Think about some films and TV you’ve seen with actors like Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton, Robert De Niro, Cicely Tyson, Alan Arkin, Michael Douglas, Lili Tomlin, Glen Close, James Earl Jones, and Jane Fonda, whose characters lead lives that actually reflect their own generation. Some commercials use older adults who are actively engaged in an activity. Artists in various disciplines work well into their older years. But what about everyday people who have a need for creative expression? For the most part, the image and expectation of a vibrant, curious, creative older adult has not trickled down to the workplace, where we shop, where we live, into communities, senior centers, and social service agencies, or in libraries where we seek knowledge and socialization.

What is this all about? It’s about Ageism. We talk about sexism, racism, but what about this ism beyond gender, identify, and heritage? If we are fortunate to live beyond middle age, we will encounter some form of this kind of discrimination. AARP President, JoAnn Jenkins, asks the question in her book, Disrupt Aging: “How do we get everyone (including ourselves) to start thinking about and reflecting on the question – Am I Ageist in the way I talk, or in the way I interact with people? The other day at the gym, the trainer called me, “Sweetheart.” If he called a young person that, that person would report him for regarding him or her with a sexist slur. At the doctor’s office, after I was checked in by my name, the receptionist told me to, “Have a seat, Dear.” I felt like both a kindergartener and a nursing home resident at the same time. I replied politely but clearly, “Thank you. My name is Mary.” Myths define us. Myths may even be how we define ourselves. I’ve heard from a number of older adults that, “I like being called a senior.” It’s my guess that they like being acknowledged and referred to period, rather than be treated as if they were invisible.

Being an older adult does have its perks. Discounted movie tickets, early bird restaurant specials, sometimes free gym membership with your chosen Medicare health plan. After all these years of living, we deserve some kind of reward for surviving so far. But asked to glue and paint elbow pasta to a paper plate or color in an adult coloring book where we must stay within the lines, is a mere excuse for arts engagement and is not a perk at all. It’s a perpetuation of the idea that older adults have lost their creative drive and need to be kept busy with busy work. If society believes these myths, why would anyone believe that at this point in our lives we’d be interested in active participation in the arts? All one has to do is attend a concert, film, theatre, or museum to see these institutions brimming with curious older adults, albeit in passive, observer mode. Given the chance, these older adults would jump at the opportunity to engage in some way in the forms of art they view so enthusiastically as audiences.  

How do we break the mold, dispel the myths, and gain respect rather than be stereotyped, marginalized or ignored? How do we inform society, local government, senior and community centers, assisted living homes, nursing homes, and even friends and family of what our Third Act (to use a theatrical term) should be about? One way is to educate others by telling them what we want and need in our older adult years. Social engagement through activity is one way to provide lifelong learning and quality of life. One of the best ways, proven through scientific studies, is through engagement in the arts. It’s called, Creative Aging. One study, entitled, “The Impact of Professionally Conducted Cultural Programs on the Physical Health, Mental Health, and Social Functioning of Older Adults” proved that in regard to social engagement/lifelong learning programs through the arts for older adults, there was a positive impact when taught by teaching artist professionals. Reported measurable evidence in participants showed better overall physical health, fewer doctor visits, less medication, fewer instances of falls, better morale, fewer feelings or loneliness, and an interest in continuing activities. This scientific study, organized by The National Center for Creative Aging and The National Endowment for the Arts, the Center for Mental Health Services of the Dept. of Health and Human Services, and AARP, was headed by Dr. Gene D. Cohen of Gerontologist at George Washington University. Dr. Cohen also asked older adults to create a social portfolio of activities similar to their financial portfolio. In other words, think about activities as if they were investments. It’s wise to diversity our activities, so if one goes bad, the others will keep us afloat.

People old and young sometimes tell themselves, I’m not an artist, I can’t sing, dance, make or move to music, write creatively, act, draw, etc. When someone tells me that, I ask them if someone – a teacher, parent, sibling, peer – ever told them in their childhood years, that they were incapable of any specific creative endeavor, like the ones I’ve mentioned. They always answer, “Yes,” and that notion still remains with them. They sincerely believe it. I ask them to allow me to prove, though creative activities, that their impression is simply not true. As a professional master teaching artist, I have witnessed in my work with all ages that the statement, I can’t! is simply not so. We all have the creative spirit in us. I have seen it bloom in every participant I’ve encountered in my classes and workshops under safe, fun, creative, accommodating and encouraging settings.  

What is a teaching artist? What exactly is a teaching artist? He or she is adept at tapping people’s artistic competence and both instructor and artist with a gift and the skills to engage people experientially. A teaching artist is a trained professional who creates a safe and expressive atmosphere that nurtures others to create authentic work before they become doubtful and insecure about what they can do. Teaching artists can inform institutions and community gathering places about how underserved populations can benefit from arts, such as how to utilize the arts in aging, by creating a conducive atmosphere for self-expression.

What do these engaging arts programs consist of, where are these programs, and how do they work? They are skill-based programs in creative writing and memoir, music and singing, acting and improvisation, movement and dance, and in combination thereof, where socializing and skills building is encouraged. Whether at adult day care centers, assisted living facilities, Alzheimer’s centers, in the private homes of older adults (and even with caregivers and their support groups), the days of busy work or TV as companion is no longer acceptable.

These programs could be in your neighborhood but unfortunately are often few and far between and not always taught by qualified teaching artists. The good news is more and more such quality, professionally taught arts and cultural programs that offer skills and enjoyment to a spectrum of older adults are being established in the U.S. and around the world. These are not art therapy programs or cursory recreational activities. These programs find ways of tapping our creative spirit by experiencing a new set of skills, brushing up on an old one, trying a creative activity that one has always wanted to try, and, ultimately fostering expression in one’s own unique way.

Unfortunately, any organizations and institutions are either unaware of available funding for these programs or are reluctant to break from the same old status quo programming. I have often heard the following reasoning for not trying new program ideas in public settings. “We offer classes but no one shows up!” The questions are: Are these organizations promoting something exciting and unique? Are they one-shot, 30 minute classes that have no weekly follow up where a person can actually learn a skill while socializing over time? It has been shown that older adults are not interested in these one-off type classes. Are these classes taught by well-meaning volunteers who may themselves have an interest in these topics but don’t have the mastery of methods and curriculum to successfully address, acknowledge and respect the specific needs of older adults that relate to the vast life experience only older adults bring to the table?

Peek in on passive sit-and-listen lectures with older adult audiences and you’ll see a number of people who are half or fully asleep. This isn’t because they’re are old, it’s because they are not being engaged! Observe an active, lesson-planned professional workshop and you’ll see older adults laughing, working, creating, socializing, learning from each other and having fun.

Why are these classes often taught by volunteers? The refrain often heard is, We have no budget for professionals to work with our seniors. Ask yourself, would you be satisfied to have your children or grandchildren taught in school by full-time volunteers instead of trained teaching professionals? So why should we settle for less than the best equipped instructors for our older adults? Because there is nowhere in the budget to pay them? Because we are still in a 1950’s model of ignoring the expressive, creative needs of older adults? Would you hire a volunteer plumber because he likes working with bathroom pipes but has no specific training in the intricacies of bathroom waterworks?

There is certainly a place for volunteers. Volunteers are noble and volunteering is a worthy cause. We older adults are often, in fact, asked to be volunteers to serve other’s needs, but what about those volunteers’ needs and interests? We have less time before us than behind us. All older adults should have access to pursue the things we have always wanted to explore, do the things we love, be it art, sport, lively discussion, or learn something new in an exciting, creative social setting with the guidance of a professional.

What are other examples of how we are missing the mark on focusing on active engagement? A local community college has free art programs for “seniors” but chooses to offer mostly passive listening classes but not creative writing classes. Who has more stories to tell than an older adult? A local “senior” center has a great variety of active learning workshops for a fee, yet their New Year’s Eve party is a sit-and-watch affair featuring an opera singing magician. Original, but how about a sock hop or ballroom dance where people participate, socialize, and sway or dance to the music of their younger years?

What about funding? There still remains a chasm between arts programming and social services. Social services and senior centers will often tell you that they already have activities taught by volunteers or that they can’t afford to pay qualified instructors.

There is government funding for our aging population, but what kinds of things do they fund? And do those projects reflect older adults creative needs as we know them today? Do our politicians also regard us within that all too common stereotype? Will we resort to remain seated in those clip art rocking chairs and become more like the stereotypes assigned to us if there are no alternative, truly engaging activities available for us?  

Until library systems and “senior” centers, retirement and nursing homes, and social agencies, etc. realize that the same old passive, stereotypical activities for older adults are selling older adults short, disrespecting this population as to what they can do and want to do, the fifty-something crowd will remain cheated of the creative spirit that is alive and well within them.  

How can we participate in establishing arts engaging programs for older adults in our community? What can we do? We can request engaging, interesting non-stereotypical programs for older adults from your libraries, community centers, etc. We can demand that your congress persons fund quality programs for older adults as well as meals and passive programming. Many recreational directors are not trained in the current trends of social arts engagement/lifelong learning programs, so educate them, their supervisors and their corporations in how and what programs you would like to see offered.  

What about those with Alzheimer’s? From those with early stages to those who are frail, these people can engage in some form of the arts for a better quality of life. My work with Alzheimer’s patients incorporated singing old songs, dance/movement, and watercolor painting. These activities encourage conversation. And although sometimes these conversations may not seem to make sense to the outside world, such artistic and social engagement can bring forth genuine smiles and interaction along with conversation of all kinds.  

What happened to the idea of listening to what older adults can teach us? Think back to a time when elders were honored and revered for their presence, their experiences, and their knowledge. In my one act play, The Tram, an older women says to a young women she meets on the Tram that travels over the East River in NYC: When younger people cross the path of old people, they ignore them, or laugh at them. Why? Because they see the mirror of time before them. And they don’t want to believe old age will happen to them.  

In conclusion: Everyone should be given the opportunity to enrich their lives through participation in the arts. Increasing numbers of older adults need and want more freedom to spend time with others, develop new skills, find ways to express themselves creatively, or try something they have always wanted to do. Prioritizing access for arts engagement is possible. Reinforcing old myths, handing out pills, scaring people into submission, and offering lip service to the older underserved as a way of keeping us invisible will no longer be tolerated when we voice our needs. What was once acceptable is now known as elder abuse.

It’s true, life as an older adult is not all peaches and cream - to use an common expression. But if sadness befalls us from the loss of others in our lives or illness and aches and pains come upon us, together, in a common creative space of trust and comaraderie, we can share, express and address the feelings that comes with these events through the power of creative aging and social engagement in creative writing, movement, dance, theatre, improvisation, storytelling and song.

With all this said, there is light on the horizon when it comes to regard for older adults. We are seeing what is called age-friendly cities and universal design structures, where homes and communities are architecturally built to accommodate our physical needs as we grow older. Some older adult housing is located on university campuses so older adults may enjoy the cultural atmosphere a campus offers. Some older adult housing includes in its structure an arts studio, a piano, a theatre, a dance floor. You can find several of these apartment complexes in our area in Burbank, North Hollywood, and San Pedro, in connection with EngAGE, a nonprofit organization dedicated to arts and housing for older adults with an interest in an intergeneration experience, where you can find apartments with universal design and arts programming under one roof.

You know the term, Senior Moment? No such thing. So why do these moments of forgetfulness sometimes occur? It’s been said that we have so much information and memory in our brains after all these years, it just takes a bit longer to retrieve them! Growing old beats the alternative – dying young. Embrace life, be proud of how far you have come, enjoy every moment you can, and seek out ways and places where your creative spirit is welcome and encouraged. Art is all around us. In our individual and collective cultures, in our unique perspectives, in our bodies, voices, hands and heart. Share what you know about what you need, not just physically and emotionally but creatively. Enrich your life and create meaningful outcomes through arts and social engagement by trading old myths for new visions about yourself and your community.

Bio: Mary Crescenzo is an artist, activist and educator, specializing in arts with older adults. She is a public speaker on the benefits of arts engagement and how such activities can improve quality of life. Mary is a founding roster member of Lifetime Arts, New York based national non-profit that provides free quality arts programming for older adults through community organizations. She is a master teaching artist with decades of experience around the country, arts programming consultant, lecturer, professional development workshop facilitator for teaching artists, and curricula developer for organizations including Haven Hills and Topanga Community Center. She is a pioneer and advocate for instigating awareness in individuals, organizations, and businesses, locally and in our nation, on how the arts can help to debunk myths about older adults and create a world of social engagement and lifelong learning for all humans. A native New Yorker and current Topanga, California resident, Mary is also a professional writer, playwright, poet, actor, Jazz singer and vocal coach, and a lifetime member of Dramatists Guild of America, and member of


Whitney Kear