Leadership InSight: Leading Forward to Advance Creative Aging

This article originially appeared in GuildNotes, Issue 4 2017, as part of the Leadership InSight series. Members can access the full publication here.

In 2017, in partnership with Lifetime Arts, the National Guild launched the Catalyzing Creative Aging Program, a capacity building and seed grant initiative that will support 20 organizations across the country as they establish new, professionally led arts education programs for older adults. As Jonathan Herman, Guild executive director, noted, “Guild members are uniquely positioned to play a leading role in providing innovative programming for an aging population that is living longer, healthier lives.” In order to do that, community arts education leaders need the perspectives, tools, and resources that are necessary to implement arts learning for older adults focused on increasing social engagement and promoting mastery.

As Maura O’Malley, co-founder and CEO of Lifetime Arts, puts it: “Aging is something that affects every single one of us. Yet, as a society, we are not adequately prepared to address it.” According to The Center for Health Design, “the older population (aged 65 and over) will nearly double in the next four decades, rising from 43.1 million in 2012 to 83.7 million in 2050.” These demographic shifts have important implications for community health and social services— but, crucially, they also represent a new landscape for arts education. Over the last two decades, in recognition of the importance of positioning the arts as integral to positive aging, the field of creative aging has taken shape. Across the country, community arts organizations are taking note of this growing field of practice, connecting with community partners to explore arts and aging opportunities, and training their staff to work with all arts learners, regardless of age.

How can leaders approach this challenge in the coming years? To help answer this question, we spoke to Maura O’Malley about her own journey in creative aging, the cultural shifts in our understanding of positive aging, and the social transformations that need to occur for us to meet the creative needs of older adults in a meaningful way.
What is your background in creative aging and how have you seen the field evolve over the last decade?
Until about fifteen years ago, my focus was solely on arts education, working with the New York Board of Education, Young Audiences of New York, and other organizations on program design, development, and teacher training. Around 2005, however, I became a caregiver to several of my older relatives and I began to think about arts education in reference to older adults. I was able to join a committee in Westchester County that was focused on creative aging—a term that I had never heard before but knew was something I would gravitate toward. Ed Friedman, then deputy director of the Bronx Council on the Arts and now co-founder and executive director of Lifetime Arts, also happened to be a part of that committee. It turned out that, of the people on the committee, Ed and myself were the only two members that were professional arts administrators—everyone else worked in social services. Through the exchange of ideas, it soon became clear to us that there needed to be an institution that could bridge the gap between the local community based organizations (CBOs) that were working with older adults and the teaching artist community that Ed and I were connected to. So, with some local funding, we started Lifetime Arts and we are now coming into our tenth year. Our model, from the beginning, has been rooted in the strengths of arts education—sequential learning, skill-building, and professional instruction. We knew that those were the ingredients of successful arts programming for older adults.
Since we started—as it happens, in an extra bedroom in my house—the field has gone through crucial transformations. For the first five years, as we attended every possible convening and conference for older adult service providers, we found that the arts community was not even at  the table. There were almost no arts organizations that were actively involved in shifting the conversation around what aging services can look like. Since then, alongside Lifetime Arts, major institutions in the arts have taken note of the creative aging field and put significant resources toward shifting their programming. The National Center for Creative Aging, founded in 2001, became more active in shaping the conversation around aging services in general. Having this national advocacy organization helped those of us working in the field create a sense of shared identity and direction.
Another big shift has been a more significant societal recognition—through research and public awareness—that the demographic shifts we are facing need to be taken seriously. Projects such as the Age-Friendly Cities Initiative, which began looking at how cities can better serve older adults and promote positive aging. Even that term—positive aging—became a valuable framework and footing for looking at how institutions and CBOs were thinking about and treating older adults. What were they providing for them? Who were they seeing as older adults? With these questions being asked, we were better positioned to step in and say, look, there is not an age at which you stop thinking, or creating, or being. We are all in this state of aging, and we need to start there if we are ever going to see the cultural shift that is necessary to advance this work.
In the coming years, there will be significantly more people over the age of 65 than under the age of 5. So the question for the field is, given this reality, how are you going to adjust your programming, hiring practices, and vision to serve the whole community?
To what extent have you seen a cultural shift occur in relation to our understanding of aging? Does it make you hopeful for the future?
While we have a very long way to go, there have been enormous shifts in the way people understand and approach aging. Largely because of baby boomers (we’re not dead yet!), people’s ideas have started to change. Most importantly, over the last few years, the field literature and the public discussion is more centered on celebrating aging, rather than seeing it as a deficit. Terms like the “silver tsunami” are an indication of how the public has understood aging in the past and, with those framings becoming less popular, we can start to talk about aging in a new way. We can start to talk about how diverse the aging population is. We can start to look at its scale—in the K-12 world we are looking at a thirteen year age span but in creative aging we’re talking about a fifty year span. There is a vast cultural and experiential gap between a 65 year old and an 80 year old.
These kinds of challenges make creative aging a difficult task. However, with changes in the public discussion, with new resources for the field, and with new leaders stepping in to champion the work, the future does indeed look hopeful. More people are realizing the enormity of the task but also the incredible gratification that comes along with this work. As a specific example, Lifetime Arts recently received a $600,000 grant from the New York Community Trust that is a joint project of the Thriving Communities division, which supports the arts, and the Healthy Lives division, which is focused on social services. This kind of coordinated support, which will improve the City’s arts and cultural classes in 250 senior centers across the five boroughs, would never have been possible within the social context for aging that existed even ten years ago.
How should leaders or organizations that are stepping into this work prepare themselves? What skills and perspectives will they—and their colleagues—need in order to strengthen creative aging in their communities?

The first thing organizations and leaders should consider when stepping into the realm of creative aging is: who are the people in this group and what are they interested in? Contrary to what most programs provide, older adults are not only interested in passive entertainment. There can be one-off programs that provide benefit. But, in terms of healthy aging, designing learning that stresses mastery and active participation is vital.
We have found that training across the board is necessary in order to approach this work effectively. For teaching artists, changing from the K-12 realm to working with older adults means learning new skills, not so much in terms of content development, but in the delivery of the curriculum and the environment in which it is provided. Administrators and teaching artists also need to recognize that older adults come with 50, 60, or 70 years of life experience. This means that they will bring this life experience to the classroom—which, if treated properly, can provide immense benefit for the learning experience. But, without a sensitivity to the lived experience of older adults, program will quickly disengage their constituents and fail to expand their reach. To better understand that lived experience, engage deeply with the community of older adults—and those serving older adults—in your local area. Bring older adults into the program design process. Meet with local service providers about the needs of the local aging population and how the arts might play a role. Think about arts education as a continuum that runs throughout the lifespan. 
Ultimately, however, anyone delving into this work needs to consider their own biases around ageism and begin to come to terms with how they truly view older adults in our society. If serving older adults isn’t a part of your mission, think about why. Is it because of constraints that cannot be overcome or is it because you view the needs of older adults as alien or less vital than the needs of other groups? Ask yourself: why should anybody be exempted from learning? Structurally, we see that 75% of the budgets of public libraries go toward early childhood learning when, in fact, the majority of people who attend the library are older adults. These kinds of policies are rooted in ageism and, for leaders to begin to address it, they need to grapple with their own perspectives on and misunderstandings of aging.
Are there common themes that come up for you when thinking about barriers to strengthening creative aging in the future?
The most significant barrier will likely continue to be our imagination. How do we understand the needs of older adults and what do we think that they deserve? As a field, in order to broaden our imagination in this regard it will require a significant amount of work—individual investigation of our biases; ongoing conversations with older adults in the community; and broader, national conversations aimed at shifting public consciousness. Importantly, it all starts with how we understand and imagine learning. Is it something that we will continue to picture only for young people, or will that frame expand to include all learners at any stage of life?
80 years from now, where would you hope to see the field of creative aging?
In many ways, I would hope that the term “creative aging” doesn’t need to exist. Hopefully we will be at a point where it is simply creativity and learning for everybody and we don’t need to make distinctions that end up prioritizing one group over another. Of course, the work will always vary depending on the population, but I would hope to see vibrant communities of arts learners everywhere that do not tolerate isolation, particularly among older adults. And I would hope that we all understand that creative aging is not just for the benefit of older adults, it’s for the benefit of communities at large.
Finally, I would hope that the Guild continues to support older learners and continues to find engaging, healthy, and fun ways to help organizations move towards a broader view of what it means to provide arts education.

Published: January 08, 2018