Artists spread joy to senior communities
One cold, sunny morning, two dozen residents of an assisted living community in Rockville, Maryland, form a circle with their wheelchairs. A teacher enters the circle, greeting each person with a smile.
“I’m Deborah. And we are going to do some dancing together today in our chairs,” she says.
As Deborah Riley, a teaching artist from Arts for the Aging, turns on some music, one woman resident reaches for a hug. A frequent attendee of Riley’s classes, she is known for getting out of her wheelchair to dance, “like a flower blooming,” according to Kayla Conklin, project assistant at Arts for the Aging, based in Rockville.
Riley’s classes are part of a new project Arts for the Aging launched last September to combat loneliness through art — singing, dancing, painting, poetry and “joy of movement” classes. Funded by Montgomery County’s Health and Human Services department through the American Rescue Plan, it’s called the Creative Connections Project.
“This [project] is about combating isolation and spreading joy, and combating some of that loneliness that was exacerbated, especially in aging communities, throughout the pandemic,” said Janine Tursini, CEO of Arts for the Aging.
A mission to help
Since 1988, the nonprofit Arts for the Aging has worked to bring “the dazzling beauty and therapeutic power of the arts to older adults and their caregivers…led by a celebrated faculty of teaching artists,” according to the social service organization’s website.
Its workshops, both in person and virtual, share a variety of visual and literary arts with residents of all types of older adult communities, as well as arts education and ideas for their caregivers.
Last year, it launched the Creative Connections Project specifically for long-term care communities in Montgomery County, Maryland.
A teaching artist like Riley hosts four classes that are free for a facility’s residents, giving them a little exercise and attention. Riley regularly asks for ideas from her students, calling on them by name and incorporating their answers into a group dance, which she leads.
The teachers are focused on “making a connection with individuals in the room and the group, encouraging the use of imagination — because that never fails,” Tursini said, no matter one’s age.
In these interactive classes, Tursini added, “Everyone can be seen and heard and valued. There’s also chemistry happening in our bodies with social connection: Those feel-good hormones increase when we connect in these ways.”
The teachers themselves enjoy leading these classes, according to Sarah House, program director.
“The teaching artists are not only professional working artists themselves, but we consider them caregivers,” House said. “One teacher has previously described the work as ‘soul work.’”
‘Programs are in demand’
Arts for the Aging incorporates current research on aging into its programs. According to several studies, older adults who participate in creative arts activities become less lonely and depressed.
“We’re grounded in all of these studies that are showing reduction in risk factors that drive the need for long-term health care,” Tursini said.
Arts for the Aging is recruiting 30 to 40 long-term care communities in Montgomery County for the Creative Connections project.
“The programs are in in demand, and there’s a limited number of spots available,” Conklin said. “Every single community that has finished their four programs has reached out to me and asked for more.”
New participants are welcome in 2024, Tursini said.
“It’s important for us to carry out this contract and to expand our reach because we know that it will bring joy and bring people together in ways that that will create a sense of health and well-being.”
For more information on Arts for the Aging, or if you know of a community interested in participating in the program, call (301) 637-4437 or visit artsfortheaging.org.