The Joy of Working in Arts and Aging

When people see a building with “seniors” in the name they often tend to think of a depressing place – a “warehouse where people wait to die”

This is scandalous and I have spent the last 14 years changing the fact of senior apartment buildings, while specializing in Senior Arts Buildings (or any age Arts for that matter). Now when I walk into a senior building I read an atmosphere of change.

IMG_0539Last week, unsuspecting, I closed up my office in a senior arts colony and walked into a moment that contained the essence of our work. Typically the programs are spread out over a week, but at that moment things were happening simultaneously!

Glorious singing and the sounds of violin and piano flowed out of the clubhouse door to my left. Ah yes, I thought, that would be the 3 residents being filmed for a documentary as they rehearse for their recital at the weekend.

Across the hall, the library – recently vacated by the poetry group led by a spoken word artist – was now occupied by another group.

IMG_2054_2As I passed the door, one of the writers called my name, jumped up and rapidly circumnavigated the group. Her excitement was palpable.

Sally, is a resident I know well, who participated in many of the programs I have been instrumental in developing. I knew she decided that she is a writer, and indeed she celebrated her 80th birthday by publishing a mystery novel.

She described her interview with the film-maker to me. “ He asked to see my paintings. And I told him that they are all crap!” She gave a dismissive wave of the hand, then continued”….but he persuaded me to show him, and when I pulled them out and looked at them, I realized that I was wrong – they are good, I even like most of them” and she beamed.

“Does that mean you will be painting some more? “ I asked “Oh yes!” and she happily returned to join the others deeply engrossed in crafting a story for an online interactive soap opera eventually to reach isolated people.

As I walked down the stairs, I greeted two men leaning on a banister and buck gold perform 2012surveying the street below. One of them had done well at our recent annual Olympics, and I wanted to acknowledge that, even though he doesn’t speak much English. So I said “Olympics” and held both thumbs up.

They smiled in return and his friend pointed at him and said emphatically “He is Champion!”

Music, writing, painting, winning medals, these themes weaving in and around that moment in time brought me such a sense of joy. A feeling of “This is IT!”

Others can talk about the value of arts in aging in the abstract but I have the privilege of experiencing the effects of our work. And it feels so good. As I write, the memory of that day flows through me like the music that echoed through the hallways of that building.

To see the extraordinary documentary by Russ Haan go to

What do Core values sound like??

Recently I had a conversation about meaning and purpose in later life with Dr. Rod Paton from the University of Chichester, England when he was in Los Angeles. He mentioned that he was supposed to retire 8 years ago but had not. Instead, he re-directed some of his time and energy. His is now a self-described “phased” retirement and he attributes the meaning and purpose for his life to incorporating his core values in his work. He continues his university involvement two days a week because “there is still something for me to do there!”

He has had time to write a second book (Lifemusic: Connecting People to Time. 2011.). In this book he explores the archetypal properties of music, challenges cultural norms and advocates for an inclusive, non-elitist philosophy of music and communities. Therein lies his statement of Core Values.

Rod is passionate about music and while he continues to compose and play many different kinds of music (notably Ascension JazzMass) on a variety of instruments, he also promotes involvement in LifeMusic, which was why he was in Los Angeles.

He says “It is always difficult to describe exactly what happens in a LifeMusic session. Improvisation is so under defined, nobody quite knows what to expect…… But the group …….picked up the ideas as I explained them and entered into the spirit of the improvising immediately. The LifeMusic method works by providing an anchor or framework for the each improvisation (a holding form) but then letting this go or at least pushing it into the background so that the really creative stuff can be fore-grounded.”

He has been collaborating in LifeMusic with Hedda Kaphengst of Klawitty Theatre in Ireland and he recently joined her in visiting Southern California where I introduced them to several groups of seniors..

The first was in senior housing in North Hollywood. He unpacked a suitcase of intriguing percussion instruments and invited the group to “pick one, any one, …there is no wrong way to play these instruments in this workshop.” he assured people. The group tentatively experimented with sound for a short while, and then LifeMusic stories began when he asked people to share their first memory of music. Several remembered, with pleasure, being constantly surrounded by music as children and described their musical family members. Others recalled riding in the car listening to the radio with a parent as a special experience. Each account evoked recognition and even more stories from their listeners and we saw how the bonds of shared experiences began to form.


When playing resumed, it became obvious that the music-making was now a collaboration. The participants were no longer following a “leader” but, by listening to themselves, they began to trust their unique contribution to the music. Gradually members spontaneously stepped into the circle, some danced around, stopping in front of other members and communicating with their instruments. A dignified silver-haired retired psychologist swayed into the center and, with arms raised, gracefully danced in obvious delight.

In another workshop, a shared acapella Sammi folk-song brought the whole group to their feet to move enthusiastically to the beat and, when it was finished, to roar with joyful laughter.

At a final performance Hedda sang a fitting Irish tribute to The Lord of the Dance. Only then did Rod reveal that he had put a couple of poems written by a group member to music. As he played and sang, the poet’s face became illuminated and she was engrossed in absorbing the full experience of hearing her poems sung. She and all of us present were touched to tears by the beauty of the words and music together. How satisfying to bring such an experience to fruition!

Later Rod commented about being in Los Angeles and seeing tourists taking “selfies ” at the gates of famous people’s houses.  “Nowadays, we take our inner hunger for meaning and purpose, which we used to serve ceremoniously to the gods, and project it onto screen gods (and goddesses). But why not celebrate our own awareness?”

Hedda and Rod have departed for the United Kingdom secure in the knowledge that they involved groups of participants in celebrating an expanded awareness of music-making, and through the process connected people to music, forged deeper ties between neighbors and brought moments of timeless joy to those they touched with music.

There is indeed something for Rod “to do there”, which also gives him a feeling of meaning and purpose as he models how integrating core values into our lives is a tool for regeneration.

What core values are you bringing to your work and daily life?

Dancing “…If there’s anything I can do…”

I hope I will always be able to dance because dancing provides a doorway into a different time and space. I seem to move on from fear or sadness or stress, as I did recently.

Driving on a Los Angeles freeway, in rush hour in the dark, I tried to ignore the dreaded wobble, which could only mean a flat tire. I was rushing to the first of two finely calibrated appointments that evening. Inching towards the next exit, I saw it was to the largest park in the area. Sitting alone in the dark on the side of the road in a park waiting for help was not what I wanted to do so I kept driving until I reached the Autry Western Heritage Center. Fortunately it was still open and I parked in the no-waiting zone under a light and called roadside assistance first and then the people who were expecting me downtown to cancel.

When I told the museum security guard, who had driven up in a golf cart, about my mishap he circled by for the next half an hour to make sure I was safe. The tow-truck driver briskly changed the flat tire for a flimsy looking spare and I wearily prepared to drive home for the few miles allowed a temporary wheel. First, I called my colleague to explain that I could not attend the anniversary celebration that we had been preparing for all day. Amanda very quickly informed me that I had to be there and that someone was already on his way (in rush hour!) to pick me up and take me to the event. Rafael, the security guard, said I could leave my car in his parking lot for a couple of hours and I was driven back to the event.

On my arrival I was startled to meet 4 young men dressed as The Beatles coming out of my office. They had been booked to perform and I recollected that The Beatles haircut had been part of British art students’ uniform when John Lennon was an art student. The young musicians laughed when I told them how I used to cut the male art students’ hair in that very style to the annoyance of our professors who thought we should all be in class.

When the early Beatles songs rang out there was an immediate reaction from the audience, who were mostly sixty-years and older. Some bounced in their chairs and sang along. Others got up and danced and I, forgetting the evening’s problems, jumped up to join them.
Photos courtesy Tyrone Polk
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We danced and waved our arms, singing “She loves you, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!” at the tops of our voices. I was a teenager again and that energy surged through me as I danced the old steps, laughing and singing – no thoughts of dark parks, rush-hour flat tires, or where I would go for a replacement next morning.

More people joined us, laughing and dancing, reliving the days when we went on like this for hours. We were so joyful, so carefree, giving ourselves up to the music, to the memories, and for a few hours, to youthful exuberance .

On the way home “If there’s anything that you want…If there’s anything I can do…” sang through my head and I thought of the kind guard, Rafael, who kept watch over me, of Amanda who insisted that I come to the event, and generous Tyrone driving through LA rush hour to get me to the celebration. And the dancing ….”Just call on me and I’ll send it along……” when I forgot my worries and stress — not only of that day — but it seemed for a short while, of my whole adult life.

I want dancing on my Roadmap of Aging!