You’ve probably heard it said, “Growing old is not for the faint of heart,” and it’s true that there are many challenges for older adults as they navigate the aging process. For many there is the loss of independence, diminished physical ability, and age discrimination, not to mention the additional challenges of isolation, ridicule, stereotypes, the financial pinch of losing income, and even elder abuse.
These are discouraging challenges, but here at Educational Alliance, we are determined that New York City’s older adults have the opportunities and resources to age with dignity. One way we tackle this problem is by facilitating creative opportunities for older adults at Educational Alliance’s Older Adult Centers for NYC adults ages 60 plus; Sirovich Center for Balanced Living, Weinberg Center for Balanced Living, and the 14Y (for people of all ages) to express themselves through movement and storytelling.
Creativity and Aging
The research on creativity and growing older is clear: The National Institute on Aging reported, “Research on music, dance, creative writing, and other participatory arts shows promise for improving older adults’ quality of life and well-being, from better cognitive function, memory, and self-esteem to reduced stress and increased social interaction.”
We sat down with our 2023 SU-CASA residency teaching artists Simone Coonrod, Magda Kaczmarska MFA, ACE-CPT, and Joy Love – who teach classes emphasizing storytelling through movement and art – to learn more about what inspires them to work with older adults, how older adults in turn inspire them, and how this work helps to improve everyone’s mental, physical, and emotional health.
Current artists and classes for older adults are Stories in the Moment for All taught by Magda, Poetry of Swing taught by Simone, and Sidewalk Storybook taught by Joy. These creative opportunities are available to our 14Y, Sirovich, and Weinberg communities through May 2023.
All of Us Have Stories to Tell
Magda was raised by her grandmother, and she told us she is delighted to be joining Sirovich, Education Alliance, the 14Y, and local community older adults for the SU-CASA 2023 residency in collaboration with grass-roots arts collective Pioneers Go East Collective, which spotlights the work of queer, immigrant and feminist artists.
“All of us have stories to tell, but elders, inevitably, through the wisdom of age, have that much more perspective to share. I never tire of witnessing the creativity, the generosity, and the deeply insightful perspectives of people older than me,” she said. But Magda’s work is also driven by social justice. “I think it is heinous that the people who raised and helped shape the communities we now reside in are systematically excluded from equitable participation.”
Simone, who teaches Poetry of Swing, enjoys interacting with older adults because of their rich life experiences. “I love hearing their attitudes towards different subjects, what they get a kick out of, what they have learned to let go of. To hear their wisdom is such a great treat,” she explained.
While the teaching artists strive to inspire their students, they’ve found that the students are often inspiring them. Joy Love, who teaches at the Weinberg Center for Balanced Living and is an Emmy nominated documentary filmmaker and internationally published illustrator, animator, and multimedia visual storyteller, told us that she loves the classroom banter. “[They have] such a capacity to enjoy life. Arthritis is just arthritis!”
Simone enjoys the honesty that older adults bring into the room. “At this stage of life, many are over trying to impress others. You hear exactly how they feel.”
Magda doesn’t necessarily view herself as a “teaching artist,” but instead as a facilitator of participants’ experiences, creative discovery, and expression. “The possibilities of new connection and understanding are endless. I am a steward and have a responsibility to cultivate a safe container for participants to take risks, and to make connections for themselves and as a group body,” she added.
This kind of environment creates a space where older adults are safe and encouraged to provide inspiration of their own, and our teaching artists told us that they see their students’ creative evolution unfold in myriad ways.
“One of the ladies told me that my class – Sidewalk Storybook – is therapeutic. That was the best compliment I can get because that’s exactly what I intended,” Joy told us. Simone was heartened by a student who recently shouted out in class, “Your class is the only time my body doesn’t hurt!”
Creative Expression is Healing
A moment that stands out for Magda was from a participant in Rainbow Stories in the Moment that she is facilitating with the Queens Center for Gay Seniors (a part of the Queens Community House). She recalls, “One of the participants, a woman in her 80s, who has some limited mobility due to a previous leg injury and uses a walker, began witnessing the class and commenting on how much she enjoyed watching her friends from the center ‘getting lost in pure joy.’”
Magda continued, “Upon coaxing from her peers, she has since joined the class and her confidence and strength is blossoming weekly. A couple of weeks ago, during a group dance (a trio), she started off the dance by stepping up to a chair, standing on one leg and diving down into a beautiful penché to roaring applause from the rest of the center. It has been a true gift to witness her transition from someone who cheered on her peers as they got lost in joy, to now, herself, creating even more joy alongside them.”
COVID-19 dramatically changed the lives of older adults who, even before the pandemic, experienced loneliness, age discrimination, and excessive worry. The pandemic only exacerbated these factors, but creative expression has proved to be a soothing balm.
Joy and Simone both shared how art and creativity keep one young, and the opportunity to laugh and banter in shared public spaces uplifts the spirit. Magda said, “Connecting in dance with diverse communities allows for an amplification of existing shared identity and can help support building new belonging and community.”
She also points to the science that supports the impact of creativity in populations like older adults. “We know from recent research that engaging in mirroring, a form of reflecting body positions, gestures, facial expressions, tones of voice or rhythms of others – which is a key part of dance – synchronizes parts of our brain and has an analgesic effect (a reduction in pain),” she explained. “So, in a way, we can infer from this research what many of us witness when we engage in dance with even just one other person, that dance helps us feel better!”
If you are an adult over 60, these classes are free, and members of the 14Y, Sirovich, and Weinberg Centers can get started here.
Second Annual CelebratEArts Festival
Mark your calendars now for our second annual CelebratEArts Festival running May 1-31 at Educational Alliance sites the 14Y, Sirovich Center, Manny Cantor Center, Co-op Village NORC ,and Project ORE, which spotlights the creative work of the Educational Alliance’s community of older adults.