|Flourish Online Magazine||Spring 2010|
Aging Artfully: A grand new day for older adults
By Scott Singleton
Artwork by Joshua Stone
At the age of 68, Bill Needs stepped into an art museum for the first time. Inspired by the experience, he enrolled in a drawing class at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Kennesaw State University’s Continuing Education Center. In the second class meeting, Needs, who worked in vocational rehabilitation counseling for more than 25 years, unexpectedly discovered drawing skills.
“After I retired, I wanted to try things I did not have time for before, and I was surprised with how well I could draw,” he says. “This was an astounding experience for me because I had no interest in the arts at all.” Needs decided to pursue teaching after completing more art classes and now serves as a drawing instructor at OLLI, Marietta Community School and a local Methodist church.
Not alone in his experience, Needs joins a growing group of older adults who are actively participating in all areas of the arts. In addition to new skills, the arts are providing opportunities for seniors to meet new people, bridge generational gaps, maintain mental and physical strength and gain new perspectives.
Susan Bass, recently retired program development officer at OLLI, explains that the classes provide the students more than an opportunity to learn something new. “We take trips to the High Museum, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and even the Varsity,” she says. “Students enjoy the socialization that the classes offer.” OLLI currently offers classes in acrylic painting, art appreciation, digital photography, poetry, dancing, drawing, watercolor and many others. Three times a year, OLLI also holds socials that allow the seniors to practice their newly developed dancing skills.
Increased interactions with classmates often provide seniors with a new way of thinking. Kathy Rennell Forbes, watercolor instructor at OLLI and at Roomscapes Gallery in downtown Woodstock, has taught students from Iceland, Holland, Japan and Slovakia. “They all have a wealth of information. They learn from me, and they learn from each other,” explains Forbes. These students from all around the world, according to Forbes, offer unique glimpses into the culture, traditions and values of their native countries.
Participating in the arts also allows seniors to remain connected to younger generations. Forbes observes, “Art can bridge generations.” Many of her students find a connection through displaying and discussing art with their children and grandchildren.
The social benefits for seniors participating in the arts cover a wide range of needs. For some, it provides hope when coping with loss. Bass recounts the experience of one student at OLLI who suffered the loss of her husband. For her, studying drawing and painting and interacting with her classmates proved not only a helpful distraction, but a source of hope. “It gave her serenity. It was a time for her to do what she wanted and not think of anything else,” says Bass.
In addition to social benefits, studying the arts helps older adults maintain their mental and physical abilities. Barbara Hammond, music education coordinator at KSU, highlights the advantages of studying music. “Music is storytelling, whether it has lyrics or not. It takes us on a journey and tells a story.” The narrative-like quality of music inspires creative thinking and increases imagination. According to a September 1998 issue of Newsweek, it has been shown that “music can actually help build and strengthen connections among nerve cells in the cerebral cortex.”
Hammond, who holds a graduate certificate in gerontology from Georgia State and often teaches at elder hostels, observes that musical skills are not required to benefit from music. The skill of listening is an aspect of music that Hammond often incorporates into her teaching. “It’s a developed skill, and it never leaves you,” explains Hammond. Understanding the concepts of musical repetition, contrast and variety forces the listener to compare and predict, according to Hammond. This mentally stimulating process allows seniors to enjoy, learn and grow from listening to music.
At KSU and in the Atlanta area, many venues exist for listening to live music, including the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the Cobb Symphony Orchestra, and the KSU Orchestra. Many adults, however, want to do more than listen. John “Sandy” Sanders, recently retired president of the Big Chicken Chorus in Marietta, did not begin singing until later in life. Upon discovery of his new skill, Sanders fully embraced the role of a musician. Sanders explains, “The wonderful thing about this art form is it gives you some fabulous life experiences that you might not have had otherwise.” Sanders also appreciates the cathartic nature of music. “A couple hours of singing, no matter what kind of day you had, relaxes you.”
People also gain new perspectives through participating in the arts. In fact, for some, the world never looks the same after becoming involved in an artistic endeavor. Needs explains, “I look at everything differently. Every tree, with the changing leaves and the fading light, is now something to draw.” Janice Vernon Slocum, recipient of the 2009 KSU Flourish Award for Art Educator, has more than 40 years experience teaching art, most recently at the West Cobb Senior Center, where she offered her students a new perspective through studying painting and drawing. Slocum says, “With painting, they have to learn to observe. I teach them to see things, even shadows. They learn to notice things more.”
Slocum recalls the experience of instructing her students to observe the violet hue of mountains from a distance. One skeptical student responded, “I’ve never seen a purple mountain before.” During the next field trip, the student approached Slocum and said, “Look at those mountains. They actually are purple.”
Whether it is listening to music or noticing purple mountains for the first time, the arts present older adults with helpful challenges. With opportunities to have their work displayed, students at OLLI and the West Cobb Senior Center have goals to work toward. Every year, OLLI holds a concert and student art show. Slocum often held art exhibitions at the Senior Center and encouraged her students to produce art to feature in the exhibition. “I always set a goal for them, and they enjoy the challenge,” says Slocum. Needs quickly had art accepted to an art exhibition at the Marietta Museum of Art and intends to continue submitting his art to exhibitions.
As opportunities to participate in the arts are increasing, more seniors are seizing the chance to get out of the house, meet new people, see new things and learn innovative skills. Although some older adults use the arts to reflect on their life, a process that psychologists call a “life review,” many of them are looking to the future. Forbes observes, “I find most of them are looking forward instead of looking back,” and many seniors are looking for meaningful, authentic experiences that enrich their lives.
Often an inspiration to his students, Needs is eager to share his story with everyone. Looking to the future, he says, “I am embarking on a new period of living that I missed the last 70 years. It’s like an awakening. I’ve had this inside me all my life and I never knew it.”