Senior Arts Colonies: “Come Ready to Play”

indexWhen Tim Carpenter was a kid in upstate New York, his family would vacation near an arts colony amid the mineral waters of Saratoga Springs. At night, lounging at lake’s edge, his parents would drink gin and tonics while the family tumbled Yahtzee dice. Though the experience was enjoyable enough, Carpenter’s heart was somewhere else. “That arts place,” he recalls fondly. “They must have some really wild conversations at night.”

Decades later – after creating senior health centers to help overburdened hospitals manage their geriatric patients – Carpenter knew there had to be a way to help prevent age-related decay from happening in the first place.

And he remembered that arts colony.

Today, Carpenter’s company engAGE serves over 7,000 older adults by providing a panoply of arts and exercise programs to 34 senior living communities in more than 20 Southern California cities.

Three of the residences – all in the Los Angeles area – boldly proclaim Senior Arts (or Artists) Colony on the side of their buildings. Burbank pioneered the concept in 2005, with Long Beach and nearby NoHo (for North Hollywood) both opening their doors near the beginning of the year.

Each facility is fueled by Carpenter’s simple philosophy.

“There’s an inherent premise that we expect them to come in here to play,” he says.

At first, Sally Connors objected when her daughter brought her to visit the Burbank site.

“It says ‘Burbank Senior Arts Colony,’” recalls Connors. “But I’m not an artist.”

“But you could be,” replied her daughter.

For Connors, the transition didn’t take long.

“I joined everything,” she says. “I went to every class they offered. And still do.”

Besides painting, filmmaking and writing – plays, poetry and screenplays – Connors has found her home as an actress, recalling her first tentative line delivered on stage.

“People laughed,” she recalls. “And I was just blown away. They found something I said was funny. And a star was born.”

The events list at each of the three colonies reads like the catalog from a health-conscious arts school: Acting for Television and Film, Chorus, Drum Circle, Yoga, Anti-Aging Exercise, Poetry in Motion, and Short Film Making. There are also a variety of lectures, musical performances, writing groups, and healthy eating classes.

Before deciding on Burbank, Connors had visited a handful of other senior facilities “and none of them had anything like this to offer.”

“The mindset is not old. I’m like a kid. I’m having a ball,” agrees Dwan Smith-Fortier, once a regular on the soap opera General Hospital who works today as a writer, producer and actress. She lives in Burbank with her husband Nate, a recuperating stroke victim.

Former film and TV animator Kit Harper – besides her interests in poetry and gardening – enjoys mentoring students at the neighboring Burbank Community Day School, which helps provide a nurturing environment for students with a history of behavioral and conduct problems.

“I really hate the idea of a senior citizen hotel,” she sighs.

So does Carpenter.

He disdains old-school senior living, especially the word “activities” – bingo is at the top of his hit list – and recalls with a grimace “Donuts” listed on one weekly calendar.

“If I were them, I’d hate my life,” he groans. “I can’t imagine living in a one-bedroom apartment watching TV for the rest of my life. I’d rather die.”

Interested in new housing concepts for older adults, Carpenter then met aging facility pioneer John Huskey of Meta Housing – Carpenter calls him “a Renaissance Man in a business where that didn’t happen very often” – who provided the development expertise, and together they brainstormed a new type of facility that swapped out the dull commonality “age” for the more vibrant “art.”

“Why don’t we create an artist’s colony, but you just don’t go home?” recalls Carpenter. “The idea was to immerse yourself in an artist’s lifestyle.”

The sparkling apartments each offer balconies and a common swimming pool. Inside are a central club room, literary studio, visual arts room, and exercise studio. The new NoHo facility also features a high-tech 78-seat theater operated by the local Road Theatre Company.

At NoHo, a one-bedroom apartment costs $1,620 a month, which jumps to $2,120 for a two-bedroom unit. A handful of spaces – all rented – are subsidized and designated for low-income seniors.

Residents must be 62 years old to qualify.

Carpenter says the three pillars of healthy aging are no secret: regular exercise, good food, and creative stimulation.

As a creative writer turned aging expert, Carpenter has presented the TED Talk “Thriving As We Age” and co-hosts the radio show “Experience Talks” where he interviews aging experts in various disciplines for LA’s progressive radio station KPFK.

Carpenter points back to the upstate New York arts colony as both his inspiration and motivation.

“That place had a pretty magical effect on me as a kid.”

Today, it does the same for the arts colony residents.

“I’ve been around people who are in their 80’s and 90’s who are still going strong, still enjoying life, going to exercise class, singing and painting,” says Connors. “Seven years ago I thought 80 was old. Now I think it’s young.”

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