EVANSTON, IL—Three organizations—Mather, an 82-year-old not-for-profit dedicated to creating ways to age well; Georgetown University’s aging and health program; and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, working with its Office of Accessibility and VSA (Very Special Arts)—recently collaborated on a unique cross-industry initiative to answer a critical question: How can innovations in creativity developed in response to the COVID pandemic fight ageism and support healthy longevity? The results have been compiled into a creative aging innovation report, titled The Next Wave in Creative Aging.
Creative aging is a movement that has been gaining momentum for the last 15+ years, initially growing out of a study by the National Endowment for the Arts and National Institute of Mental Health in 2006, which found that older adults who engage with the arts have better outcomes in physical health, mental health and social connection, and that humans are wired to become more creative as they age. The movement has sought to make meaningful creative encounters more available to older adults and look to where arts and culture can be part of the solution to society’s most pressing needs related to aging.
Working together, Mather, Georgetown University’s aging and health program and the Kennedy Center hosted three virtual creative aging innovations forums between January and March 2022, welcoming thought leaders from arts organizations, senior living organizations, academic institutions, philanthropy and government to investigate the challenges and opportunities presented by COVID, particularly as they may impact or inform creative aging.
“Our organizations came together during a time of disruption,” said Caroline Edasis, director of senior living community engagement at Mather. “We saw a chance for creative engagement to transform the systems that support older Americans. Instead of continuing to tackle questions of isolation, access and meaning across the lifespan in silos, these forums allowed us to generate new ideas and use cross-industry collaboration to run with them.”
The group employed an interactive problem solving approach to reveal themes and ideas for the next stage of development. The participant list included an awe-inspiring group of practitioners, researchers and change-makers in aging, the arts, academia and policy, along with older adult artists and residents of Mather senior living communities in Arizona, IL and coming soon to Tysons, VA.
Exploratory questions based on critical issues in supporting the health and well-being of older adults led to the identification of three main themes:
- Autonomy, mastery and belonging
- Access and inclusion
- Redefining care systems through a strengths-based lens
These themes were then developed in small group incubators with diverse representation across senior constituencies, workforce and academic leaders. The outcome became 16 idea abstracts that represent the potential for interdisciplinary problem solving in four areas: research and innovation, systems-level change, infrastructure and spaces and intergenerational lifelong learning. The idea being that other organizations or groups could then take the concepts generated and implement or build on them.
“It is our hope that others will continue the conversation originating from the creative aging innovation forums,” said Pamela Saunders, associate professor and director of the aging and health program at Georgetown University. “We encourage the implementation of the abstracts developed by forum participants that include key elements for their actualization.”
Some of the ideas generated include, Changing Names to Change Minds: New Strength-Based Terminology for Senior Living Communities; Creating Children’s Books Centered On The Adventures Of Older Adults; Intergenerational Activism to Save the Planet; and Rural Arts Creativity Houses (REACH), which will identify creative places and program strategies for asking and answering, ‘What do you (older adults) hope for?’—especially within under-resourced communities—and working to build coalitions to answer these needs and desire to break down isolation and build social engagement.
“Envisioning and cultivating inclusive and accessible arts practices that embrace every human of every age in every community—in other words, to encourage and support creative aging—is vital,” said Betty Siegel, director of accessibility and VSA at the Kennedy Center. “This report makes clear that the techniques and strategies to bring the arts to all persons are within our grasp. What we need now is commitment by those in the field of arts, disability and aging—from the grassroots to the leaders across many sectors—to engage the arts as a viable and critical component of any healthy society.”
The group will continue to meet for periodic updates and future exploration and collaboration going forward. “The process was invigorating, inspiring and full of palpable potential and momentum,” said Edasis. “It makes me optimistic for the future of aging in this country, for what it could mean for older adults to have increased access to creative encounters in their communities and for how we must continue to work in more collaborative ways to bring new ways of living, working and creating to life as we age.”