Creative Aging: “Come Together, Right Now”

Dance wall

One floor beneath the exhibit for famed filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum last month hosted the one-year anniversary of a unique collaborative – the first of its kind nationally – that unites creative aging professionals from the Bay Area.

Creative Aging SF is fast becoming the centerpiece of a thriving creative arts scene for older adults by succeeding where other areas of health care often fail: it breaks down walls of separation and blends the dedicated efforts of Bay Area creative arts professionals with the experience and wisdom of older adults.

San Francisco and the Bay Area are already home to a vast array of creative aging initiatives, including Art With Elders, StageBridge senior theater and wide-ranging arts program Ruth’s Table. Recent additions include last month’s 2nd annual Legacy Film Festival and the Institute on Aging’s “graffiti wall,” created by older adults under the tutelage of local street artists.

Creative Aging SF launched a year ago when Rachel Main, a family support coordinator for the Alzheimer’s Association, met with colleague Robert Sarison of the Ray Dolby Brain Health Center, and Jessica McCracken from the city’s Institute on Aging. The next day, Main ran into yet another colleague in the creative aging field.

It was her light bulb moment.

“There’s so much happening as far as creative aging and art,” recalls Main, “but we’re all doing it individually.”

Main and McCracken put their heads together and decided to start something — although they weren’t exactly sure what.

Expecting a small turnout at the unnamed collaborative’s first meeting, nearly 20 creative aging professionals showed up. Today there are 70 members spanning theater, dance, art, even medical clowning, along with national aging experts like Dr. Bruce Miller, who directs the UC San Francisco Memory and Aging Center.

“I leave each meeting feeling energized and inspired by my colleagues,” says Natalie Greene, director of the multigenerational dance troupe Dance Generators, headquartered at the University of San Francisco’s Department of Performing Arts and Social Justice. “There is a great service in lightening the load of leaders who get bogged down by administrative responsibilities and need to be reminded that our work is magical.”

Until the alliance took shape, each organization toiled largely alone. Separately, they eyed the coming “silver tsunami” of older adults – one in five Californians will be over 65 by 2030 – who offer a very different perspective on aging than those from previous generations. They are engaged, active, even rebellious.

“The generation who has recently retired, and the next generation to make that transition, are not the kind of people who want to fade quietly into the background,” says Greene.

Creative efforts not only inspire older adults, but also family members, home caregivers, and staff members at adult day and long-term care facilities. Main says that facilities with creative arts programs retain staff members longer by creating a more positive environment.

“It’s good for your cognition, your health, your emotional wellbeing,” agrees Sarison, who uses theatrical improvisation to help caregivers respond to the unique mental scenarios offered by dementia patients.

McCracken recalls the letter she received from the wife of an elderly man with dementia who had attended the Institute on Aging’s adult day health program; she proudly mounted his first painting on their refrigerator at home. Over and over he would look at the painting and smile.

“He may not remember the details of the day, but he comes home happy,” wrote his wife.

The national force behind creative arts and aging is the Washington, D.C.-based National Center for Creative Aging, which was inspired by the work of Gene D. Cohen, author of the seminal work The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life.

McCracken recently returned from the center’s annual convention where she was accosted by other creative aging professionals from around the country, curious to learn more.

“There was a lot of interest,” chirps McCracken. “‘How do you do that?’ ‘We should be doing that!’”

Her advice to Seattle, Portland and Los Angeles: “You should start one and we could have a west coast branch.”

Jose Rivera, executive director of Stagebridge, says the collaborative has helped him connect professionally to “some big, big national entities such as the Alzheimer’s Association, the Institute on Aging and UCSF’s Memory Care.”

It’s also drawn other creative arts organizations to Stagebridge, including members of the local medical clowning movement who hope to expand their services beyond children to include older adults.

“I was amazed at all the techniques and tips shared with (our) performers that they can use on their ’daily serious acting’ which has nothing to do with being funny or clownish,” says Rivera.

Key to the collaborative is making creative aging accessible and inclusive to those of any ability, race, or class. Main lauds the efforts of the Contemporary Jewish Museum which offers the enrichment program Creative Aging at the CJM.

Main and McCracken are now immersed in “deep planning” for the future, and hope to use the collaborative as a springboard for broader goals: public education and training for caregivers, family members, and workers in the aging field.

The two areas of greatest need: creating a long-needed website (it currently offers only a Facebook page) and financial support. A comprehensive website of creative aging activities would be a critical hub for its outreach goals.

“If we want to make a bigger impact we need to get off our soapbox and create a taller soapbox so more people can hear us,” says McCracken.

Greene says the collaborative has bridged some important gaps.

“We are reminded that there are only two degrees of separation between those of us doing this work in this part of the world,” she says.

Main agrees, and sees a bright future.

“There’s no reason San Francisco shouldn’t be leading the nation in creative arts programming.”

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