Doorways to Hope

This was published recently in LinkedIn

In just over 11 years 20% of the US population will be over 65 and, if recent ageist tradition holds, millions will continue to be dismissed as useless and obsolete.
20% of society with 40 or more years of life and professional experience constitutes a huge and rich source of social capital. In the spirit of sustainability, organizations in various fields including education, wellness and social service, are changing that waste-heap into recycling and repurposing sources.

Creativity and Aging – An Insider’s Hopeful View.

For the past 35 years my work has been to transform the feelings of purposelessness and depression that often arise from being consigned to the waste-heap of American society. The Arts and Humanities provide one set of useful tools in the transformation from discard to social asset.

The threat of reduction in Federal funds for the Arts and Humanities only reinforces the misperception that the Arts are solely for entertainment -and thus a mere frill. I am countering that misperception with how Arts and Humanities offer, instead, opportunities for meaning and purpose for the remaining 20 to 30 years of living. That is, living in the active sense!

Understanding how and why the creative process affects us is key to curing this political mis-perception.
I also hope to begin to reassure young people that aging includes many adventures, fun, excitement and even a re-ignition of passions and interests that they are presently forced to side-line.

The Insider: Practicing both art and aging for many years, I am sharing from the perspectives of an artist, a teacher, a developer of arts and humanities programs for adults and children, and as a past expressive arts therapist. This paper addresses work with aging adults but can and does apply to all ages – as research has consistently demonstrated the benefits (1, 2)

Although I describe the creative process in terms of the arts – visual, performing, literary – because I know about them, it is vitally important to acknowledge that creativity expands far beyond them. For example, my father, a retired mechanical engineer, designed and built working models of all kinds of machines. This miniature working steam-engine is a beautiful embodiment of his esthetic and creativity.

Involvement in the creative process means exploring the potential inherent in music, writing, performance, painting (or engineering design) and then actualizing it. At the same time we are also exploring, both consciously and intuitively, aspects of our own potential. We learn to actualize these through expression. This makes for a satisfying integrity to optimizing the aging /human process through the arts.

When a musician picks up an instrument, even if you know the piece she is going to play, you do not know how she will play it and how you will hear it. Imagine the hushed anticipation of the audience right before the performance begins, that exciting moment of “not-knowing”, when the music is still a potential. The musician begins to play, the actor speaks the first words of his part, the painter lays color onto the canvas, and all the possibilities – whatever they might be – are decided upon, actualized and become embodied into the final piece. This is also a great metaphor for living.

In the same way that artists actualize the potential of their latest piece, creative aging includes involving each individual in exploring his or her potential, and bringing into being, undiscovered aspects. It is such an exciting process of discovery! Over and over again, I hear “I never knew I could do that! How wonderful!”

This process can continue if we let it, until the last breath. I remember a hospitalized man in his late eighties in a visit by an artist from my team, enthusiastically confiding that he had “another design“ for their ongoing work together.  Neither of them knew that this was his last day of life. He had spent his prior final days in a sterile hospital room engrossed in imagining colors and shapes and mentally moving them into satisfying and beautiful patterns. Although his body was completely immobilized by disease, his imagination remained active and flew free. (3) We used one of his designs to advertise the Elder Banner Project of which he was a participant. (**)

Knowing this kind of freedom is a possibility invites us to reach for that freedom.

Stepping into the creative process is like boarding a plane. After take-off there is little sensation to remind you that you are traveling at 700 miles an hour, 38,000 feet above the earth’s surface. Similarly, being immersed in creating moves us into “creative time”, or flow. In that state there can be little sensation of time passing as we are transported out of the studio into other worlds. I think of this timeless place as a connection with the eternal, when the artist becomes ageless, and draws on past experience while reaching into the future.

The created piece itself, be it music or sculpture, writing or painting, has a similar ability to transcend time and place. The lines drawn on paper, thousand of years-old splotches of color on a cave wall reach across centuries and countries to touch us and share with us the artists’ views and experience. The hospitalized man was re-living his life and love of the abstract paintings he saw in the Berlin of his youth. That youthful vigor continues to be palpable in his remaining art-work. It reminds me that creativity can transcend and transform, even momentarily, the most dire physical state.

We have all felt how music can, and does, transport us. I listen to the guitarist playing a favorite and I am once again a dancing 17 year-old. Music can also serve as a two-way street. In our work we watch where, over and over again, a piece of music reaches the mind-spaces into which confused, institutionalized people have retreated and gently draws them back into present time-space. We watch in wonder as the musician throws out a life-line and we become connected in a group of people swaying in shared time.

The arts are an integrative force. Just as time and space are integrated into the moment of creating, our varied physical and emotional experiences are integrated, brought together into a coherent pattern. Using our eyes, hands, ears, arms, imagination, memory and feelings to create a painting, brings sometimes fragmented or forgotten aspects of ourselves into working in concert. In writing we bring forward ideas, experience, knowledge we did not know existed. The Arts and Humanities become doorways into social contribution and connection.

We practitioners in the field of Creative Aging believe that an individual’s potential does not disappear with age. That it is always there to be discovered is the crux of our work. For older adults to comprehend that we all continue to possess potential is vital. It is vital (from vita meaning life) because, in the face of widespread ageism, this reminds them/us that we have a purpose, that our experience is useful and valuable, that we can have hope.

With increased longevity, the demographic we call “older adults” includes several generations. We hear a great deal about the Baby–boomers and their needs, desires and hopes for the future. They can’t help the noise because there are so many of them. Most important, they are acknowledging the wounding this society inflicts on its aging individuals. I like to call the immediately preceding generational sub-group, Path-finders, and I am a member. We are quieter because, like all scouts, we need to hear the sounds and see the clues in the surroundings that indicate the direction of the path. In so doing, we revolutionized popular music, the theater and visual arts as well as social mores in the 1960s and after.

The Greatest Generation (of WW2), Path-finders, Boomers, the arts give us all ways to continue to be creative, self-respecting people, certain of our purpose and of the value of our contributions to our families and communities.

We are finding new ways of being the path for future generations to follow in joyful anticipation.

“So treat your dancers well
And
Remember their place.

They were not put here to serve you
But instead they give you grace.“

Caroline McElroy (4)

Maureen Kellen-Taylor, Ph.D. is a Visiting Scholar at The USC Davis School of Gerontology, Rongxiang Xu Lab for Regenerative Life Sciences. She was Founding Director of ArtWorks at Mount Zion Hospital, San Francisco; provided arts, humanities and intergenerational programs along with wellness and lifelong learning to 34 apartment communities in Southern California, for 14 years with EngAGE; adjunct faculty in Quest Lifelong Learning programs for South County Community College District, Hayward CA for 12 years; recipient of California Arts Council funding for 5 years and their Directors Award for dedication to the Arts in California.

References
1. Washington State Arts Commission, 2006. Arts for Every student: Education Resources Initiative, Washington State Arts Commission, Washington State http://www.arts.wa.gov
2. Silk, Yeal Z. Mahan, Stacey. Morrison, Robert. 2015. The States Status Report A Review of State and Regional Arts Education Studies. Americans for the Arts, Washington, D.C. http://www.americansforthearts.org
3. Artworks at Mount Zion Hospital, The Banner Project: Making the Invisible Visible,1981-84 San Francisco CA. A project under my direction that took designs from homebound elders to be constructed into 8ft x4ft banners by active elders and then displayed publicly.
4. Gibson, Ph.D, Morgan and Kellen-Taylor, Ph.D, Maureen (eds) 2014. Engage in Poetry: an anthology of poetry by residents of active aging apartment complexes.

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