It’s Time to Reframe Our Work with Older Adults

September 20, 2017

By: Teresa Bonner

“It is not enough for a great nation merely to have added new years to life—our objective must also be to add new life to those years.” --John F. Kennedy

For decades, arts leaders have been wringing their hands about graying audiences. But has the challenge of attracting younger audiences caused us to overlook the incredible potential of older adults and the ways the arts can engage them? Have we assumed that older adults can’t or won’t learn new things, try new art forms, or learn to create? Have we been looking through an outdated, ageist lens?

It’s time to consider the benefits of investing in arts learning by those 55 and better. “The Wall,” a powerful, brief animated video, will open your eyes to the ways that learning, making and sharing the arts can profoundly transform the experience of aging.

Let us introduce you to Ethel, Tyrone and Sally, residents of Senior Arts Colonies operated by EngAGE,, a California nonprofit. In this brief, joy-filled video, “A Dose of Creativity” you’ll see and hear first-hand how the arts have transformed the minds, bodies and spirits of these residents of affordable senior housing. With no prior experience in the arts, they now call themselves poets, actors, writers and artists. This is creative placemaking writ large: long-term, independent living for older adults in actively engaged, vibrant communities with the arts as the core spirit.


Why are these programs so important for older adults?

If you’re reading this, you already believe in the power of the arts to improve lives. If you offer or fund arts education for youth, you understand what arts learning can do based on your own lived experience: you may have loved being in band, choir, theater or dance in your school days, and if you have children, you’ve probably made sure they had these opportunities as well. Older adults benefit as much or more from these programs than we did at earlier stages of life.

Older adults desperately need and want purpose and meaning in their lives. Purpose is a critical aspect of wellbeing and has been shown to contribute to longevity and health. The arts provide this: something to master, opportunities to grow, and the release of creativity we didn’t know we had.

Social isolation is one of the most troubling aspects of aging. Its negative impact on health and wellbeing is well documented and can be compared to a lifetime of smoking. Learning an art form with others enables a new kind of connectivity – one where life experiences, stories and humor are part of the fabric.


Why is this also a boon for the arts?

1.    This is where the people are. The number of adults over 65 soon will be greater than the number of youth in the K-12 system. What are we doing for this group beyond encouraging them to buy tickets and donate?

2.    We can dramatically expand employment of artists who teach – and most of them do, at some point in their careers.

3.    We can engage more older adults in the arts in personally meaningful ways. And because they vote, we have the potential to empower more arts advocates across the country. We can all agree that this is more important than ever.

The hunger for hands-on arts learning programs is astonishing. When we launched our 2016 initiative, “Seeding Vitality Arts,” we received over 200 applications from organizations in more than 40 states. The 15 members selected for our grant cohort include museums, a dance company, an opera company, a creative writing program, and other arts education providers. They also include an independent school, a YMCA, senior living facilities and senior centers – all organizations that want to offer arts programs but had no prior experience doing so. In this work, opportunities for real cross-sector collaboration abound.

But organizations don’t have to have experience to begin this work. While this is a new field, best practices have emerged that enable highly successful programming by anyone. We’ve partnered extensively with Lifetime Arts,, a national service organization that provides training, technical assistance and strategic services to organizations interested in developing programs as well as training for teaching artists. Our first Seeding Vitality Arts cohort members are receiving in-person training and technical assistance in program design, curriculum development, evaluation, and marketing to make their programs successful. Our second initiative for Minnesota nonprofits drew 60 organizations – a remarkable outpouring of interest - to a full-day professional development workshop in July.

At the heart of this work is joy, and we are hearing it from the nearly 1,500 individuals who will have participated in our cohort members’ 2017 programs by year-end. Here are just a few examples.

  • “Art opens a part of us that we almost forgot existed.”
  • “We were shown how to take plain and ordinary and turn it into beautiful treasure. This applies to both the clay and ourselves.”
  • “Thank you for providing the opportunity for rebirth.”
  • “We're learning about the very special bond and intimacy created during this creative process. How friendships arise or a supportive atmosphere is created or the joy a group feels when one of them truly goes outside their comfort zone to take a risk.”
  • “In just the first couple of weeks, we have seen how excited the participants are about these classes, and that the classes will truly be life-changing, with residents sharing stories they hadn’t before.”

Learn more about hands-on arts learning programs for older adults at You’ll find a wealth of resources, from inspirational videos to research studies.