Thoughts on the Power of the Arts with Older Adults

Joan Green dances with her "Dancing on the Balcony" students at the Grove Hall branch of the Boston Public Library, spring 2013.
Joan Green dances with her “Dancing on the Balcony” students at the Grove Hall branch of the Boston Public Library, spring 2013.

Who can say why the act of making and doing, the process of creating art is such a fundamentally satisfying act for human beings? Who can quantify and analyze why there is such a thrill when a loaded brush hits the paper in just the right way, when a rhythm or melody emerges, when the body moves with grace or some other desired quality? Why the people you collaborate with on a song or a theater piece or in a dance have a special connection to you? I don’t know why but I do know that there is a power in art-making that is found nowhere else.

I am thinking about this because I just completed a residency as dance teaching artist working with a group of seniors at the Grove Hall Library through the Lifetime Arts Creative Aging Libraries Project. It was an amazing experience and it has got me thinking about how to talk about the importance of serious, quality art experiences for elders.

In my class, a few of the participants (from 50’s through 80’s) had had a little dance training, but most did not, yet they were totally open to engaging in a serious dance class for two hours a week for ten weeks. They are African-Americans and folks from the Caribbean, all from cultures where dancing is something everyone does, and that was a marvelous advantage. But they were also very open to moving in new ways, willing to take risks, ready for new ideas.

Our project required a culminating event, and because I am a choreographer I wanted to make a dance with them. At our culminating event, we did a demonstration class and concluded with the seven-minute dance we had created and rehearsed. Process is more important than product in dancing with elders, and yet I decided in the end that the performance piece was an important part of the experience. It pushed the dancers to go beyond their comfort zone and it gave them a marvelous sense of accomplishment. They were very invested in the success of the event and of the dance we created, which was inspired by their memories of their grandmothers.

Six days after the event, I received an email from one of the women in which she said,

“We were talking about you and the dance class just today. When 10:30 comes tomorrow we will have nowhere to go. We will deeply miss what we experienced and the people we’ve grown accustomed to dancing with. You brought something to our lives that we will hold dear. Thank you for that, and thank you for what you are passionate about. We must become passionate about movement at our age.”

For Michelle, who wrote this, the project resulted in experiencing the power of art-making and a sense of community, things we artists identify as some of the reasons why this work is so important. If you have not identified as an artist earlier in your life, discovering the creator in yourself as a senior is doubly thrilling.

I find for myself that the experience of making art intensifies as I grow older. It’s different for me than for the folks I taught at Grove Hall, because I have been doing this almost all my life. But now in my 70’s, I find a different urgency and an experience I identify as spiritual, connected with what I make.

I cannot know what the participants experience from the inside, but I think that all people have a different agenda in this stage of their lives. They feel a strong sense of gratitude for being taken seriously, for being given the opportunity to “play the artist card” we have each been dealt, as Celeste Miller expresses it.

I know this particular group of folks is very special – I have taught workshops to hundreds of groups of older adults so I have a good basis for comparison. But I leave this experience with a strengthened conviction that offering arts opportunities to elders is one of the most important, most valuable services we as a society could provide.

Clair Chapwell, an artist working with seniors in England calls the community aspect “new families for older people”. Whatever that magic is that I spoke of at the beginning of these thoughts, it is a life-giving, renewing, healing elixir that we all need and can truly make use of as we get older.

– By Joan Green, Teaching Artist