“When I’m there, I feel happy—energetic,” says Barb*, who participates in Artful Aging™ poetry workshops led by Zoë Bird. “She opens my mind to the topic of the day,” Barb says of Bird. “She knows how to bring you out. I love her energy.”
Barb, a resident at Cerenity Senior Care–Humboldt, wasn’t particularly interested in arts of any sort prior to attending Bird’s poetry workshop in 2015, but that has changed. What does she look forward to? “The greeting you get—‘Come on in,’ hugs and handshakes,” she says. “The feeling that you’re in the right place at the right time,” adding the workshop isn’t “just a group—it’s an experience”
Bird’s poetry program is part of Artful Aging, which began in 2010 and is part of COMPAS, a program offering art-filled learning via classroom residencies and public art projects through Creative Classroom, Creative Community, Arts in Healthcare and Artful Aging.
Artful Aging programs are offered in older adult residential centers, day centers, libraries and various community venues. “We adjust, depending on what setting we’re in,” Marian Santucci, former program director, says. For example, a dance program in a memory care unit would focus on creative, free movement, rather than on elements found in a traditional dance class.
“Need and demand has really burgeoned in the last few years,” Santucci says. Participants have shown interest in acrylic and watercolor painting; bookmaking; dance; fabric and paper collage; photography; poetry; silk scarf painting; Talking Suitcases, a 3D project and others.
Regardless of what art form is being explored, Santucci says the program strives to increase social engagement and improve balance and cognition. She says some of the benefits include improved morale and decreased anxiety, depression and loneliness. Santucci says achieving mastery or having a purpose is important for older adults. “It’s all very good exercise for the aging brain,” she says.
To better serve participants, many artists participate in the National Center for Creative Aging’s 13-hour training program. They are also offered ongoing professional development opportunities. Bird, a poet, has been with the program for three years. “I love being around older people,” she says. “I always have.” For 11 years, she’s also been a part of the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project, an international project with a mission to improve the quality of life of people living with Alzheimer’s disease or related dementia.
One of Bird’s Artful Aging programs, Who Am I This Time?, provides an environment, for those with memory loss or dementia to be whomever they are at that particular time and place, as their personalities can be fluid. “It’s all about being in the moment,” she says.
Bird emphasizes the importance of lifelong learning, and says Artful Aging affords creative engagement that focuses on participants’ capacity, rather than (cognitive or physical) loss. By having more time to explore their abilities within artistic realms, she says the program helps seniors redefine themselves. “They deserve their place in society as the wise ones and the sages,” Bird says, explaining that storytelling and self-expression, for example, enable them to claim that role.
Through her participation in Bird’s workshops, Frances, also a Cerenity resident, says she’s walked into the world of poetry and writers, which she had never explored. “I read books, but didn’t read poems,” she says. Frances also discovered something about herself. “I didn’t know I would enjoy poetry as much as I do,” she says.
While participants often uncover something new about themselves, Bird, too, has made some discoveries. “This experience has taught me that every person has a tremendous amount to give and express,” she says. “We’re just short on opportunities.”
*NOTE: DUE TO PRIVACY CONCERNS, ONLY THE FIRST NAMES OF THE SENIORS ARE USED.