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‘We want more than bingo’: Artists cater to seniors

Minnesota is at the forefront in recognizing that participating in the arts is good for older people.

Members of the musical group Young @ Heart perform the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated.”

It’s a good day for participants in a day program in St. Paul for older people with memory loss. 

This is the day they dance.

A dozen people sit in a circle of chairs and move to the music as professional dancer Maria Genne steps to a lively dance rhythm. After a half-hour warm-up laced with playful conversation, those able to stand are on their feet. “Side, side, back step; side, side, back step,” Genne directs, and they follow. Those in their chairs keep moving, too. “Grab your partner’s waist. Swing to the right, to the left. And then you dip.” They’re learning a swing dance.

Much more than movement is happening in this circle of people in the Wilder Adult Day Health Memory Loss Program, said Susan Ryan, an occupational therapist and the program’s coordinator. “The whole crux of it is when you get people moving with imagery, it unlocks parts of their brain that still are active,” she said. They call their lively three-times-weekly session The Dancing Heart. And the effects don’t end with the last dance.

“We find they’re able to access their language after participating,” Ryan said. During lunch afterward, participants socially interact more than they did before the dance sessions began. “The dance class keeps their attention and allows them to be successful. They enjoy it, and it helps them to use their remaining skills in a purposeful way.”

That picture is dramatically brighter than some expected, Genne said. Staff members told her she’d be lucky if participants sat for 10 minutes, she remembers, and that some people could no longer communicate. “They began joining in because they could communicate,” she said. “It was through movement. Some said, ‘I can’t dance. I’m in a (wheel)chair.’ But they could move. And they didn’t have to remember their daughter’s name. They could be successful in the dance.”

A re-imagining of aging

Now studies are in place to support those benefits and others for older people involved in the arts. They are raising the curtain on an effort that artists across the country have witnessed for years in the older population. With study results to back them up, grants such as one Genne received to support The Dancing Heart are becoming available to artists who work with older people. And service providers such as the St. Paul-based Amherst H. Wilder Foundation and others are inviting arts programs into their facilities. Genne calls the breakthrough “a marriage of science and the arts.”

Just as the recently released film “Young @ Heart” rocks theaters nationwide with its upbeat tale of a feisty, gray-haired rock ‘n’ roll band, excitement is growing in a movement to redefine what it is to grow old.

“Older people have been entertained for too long,” Genne said. “How can we be vital participants in our communities our whole lives? It’s a re-imaging. We’re carving out new turf. We want more than bingo.”

Young @ Heart
Walker George Films
Musicians featured in the 2008 documentary “Young @ Heart.”

Susan Perlstein, mother of the movement and a longtime New York City dance teacher, calls the shift “a quantum leap.” In a talk last fall at a conference of the fledgling Minnesota Creative Arts and Aging Network, she told her audience, “It’s often the arts that give people a reason to live.”

MnCAAN, which was formed to link Minnesotans 50 and older to the creative arts, has a second agenda: to recruit and train professional artists — not just dancers and writers but also oral storytellers, visual artists, musicians, quilters and others — to work with seniors and to educate senior service providers about art’s value for people as they age.

That role puts Minnesota at the forefront of a blossoming national effort, Perlstein said. Among Twin Cities artists leading the charge are Genne, founder and artistic director of the intergenerational Kairos Dance Theatre in Minneapolis, and Pat Samples, an author, memoir-writing teacher and MnCAAN’s coordinator. In a new twist on the Artists in the Schools concept, artists will share their skills in senior residences, care facilities, community education programs, senior centers and other places where seniors gather. And just as artists who visit schools are trained to learn about children, Perlstein said, “we want to help artists learn about the aging system and aging itself.”

Perlstein founded Elders Share the Arts, an organization to link all of society through artistic endeavors, in the late 1970s. But when she touted its benefits for older people in a plea for funding to the National Endowment for the Arts, “They said, ‘Prove it to us.’ “

Kairos Dance
Courtesy of Kairos Dance
Participants in Kairos artistic director Maria Genne’s program at the Wilder.

Backed this time by study results and a NEA grant, she has created the New York-based National Center for Creative Aging as a base for her cause. The creative arts differ from occupational-therapy activities and most arts and crafts in that they go beyond “busywork,” she said. In its place they invite individual expression that opens a door for self-discovery and growth, a vital aspect of healthy human development as we age.

“It’s about self-expression and honoring who we are,” she said. “Now we know if we give people meaningful, purposeful work to do, they will live longer, and it won’t cost as much to keep them engaged and active.”

Studies shift the picture

The tipping point came with a three-year landmark study by Dr. Gene Cohen, director of the Center on Aging, Health and the Humanities at George Washington University. The study showed that people who engage in the creative arts live longer than those who do not. They take fewer medications, seek less medical care, fall less often and experience less isolation, a leading cause of depression. And in Genne’s The Dancing Heart, data collected on participants have shown a 43 percent gain in cognition, along with similar increases in balance and agility.

Observing the real-life impact in the memory-loss day care program is at times dramatic, Genne said. After two years in the dance sessions, “One woman got out of her chair for the first time. I cried,” she said. Participants have become more sociable with one another and more willing to take part in new activities, said Lonnie Florek, an occupational therapy assistant in the program. “They’re more energized in whatever is going on.” Some of their caregivers say the effects carry over to home at the end of the day.

The group has performed for family members, a different Wilder day program, and onstage last month at a conference in St. Paul of the Alzheimer’s Association of Minnesota and North Dakota.

Back in the class, Genne remains clear about her purpose. She’s not there to entertain. “I come to teach the language of dance,” she said. “And there is creativity here to be tapped.” 

The Dancing Heart has become the cornerstone for the memory-loss program’s planning, said Ryan, the program coordinator. Storytelling, poetry and songwriting sessions will be added soon, she said. “And we’re wanting to add visual and media arts.”

Across town at Loren on Park, apartments with optional services in South Minneapolis, nine residents gather around a table for their twice-monthly memoir-writing class.  Despite the table, most balance notebooks on their laps. Each holds a pen in hand. They’ve come to the class for more than a year.

Some want to write memoirs for their children, others to sort out their lives for themselves. They know they have something to say, but writing it down takes discipline and commitment, and the class helps with that, they say. On this gray Tuesday morning, Samples challenges them to think about a time in their lives when they’ve exhibited courage. 

Dan Paulson cites a hitchhiking adventure he took with a friend. Pat Carter said she contemplates writing about another sort of journey — surgery that removed part of her intestinal tract. “To save my life,” she adds. She remembers it as much more than a physical experience. “Can I live with this?” she remembers asking herself. “And how will I adjust?”

Tim Hickman talks about another life-changing experience: waking up from a coma after a stroke. “I couldn’t see, I couldn’t talk and I couldn’t walk,” he said. He knew he had two choices. “I could quit. Or I could fight.”

Bonnie Clark says, “Pat is giving us the courage to say, ‘Hey, we do have stories to tell.'”

Giving meaning to life
Samples coaches participants on how to frame their stories, to tell them in an engaging way and to get to the heart of the matter. “I help them tell the importance of their stories,” she said. “To give life meaning, make sense of it and finish some emotional business.” In the process, “They find a piece of themselves.”

As family and friends gathered for a reading of their memoirs last year, Charles Fraatz read his story of two friends who became his personal “healers.” Sherry Blue shared her allegorical memoir of visiting a quilt show that led her to examine “a life that kept unraveling” and to begin crafting a new design for her future. Bonnie Clark read her whimsical tale of her first kiss – when she was “sweet 16.”

As in The Dancing Heart’s group experience, the memoir-writing class serves to build community. “Participants start to hear each other’s moments of triumph, their lifelong loves, their trials and tribulations,” Samples said. “They start to care about each other.”

A spontaneous relationship sprouted when Tim Hickman told the group that the physical act of writing remains difficult for him. Bonnie Clark offered to be his “scribe,” he said. “Now the class is forcing me to write again. And Bonnie is, too.”

Kay Harvey, a former reporter and editor for the Pioneer Press, reports on aging, demographics, gender and psychology. She can be reached at kharvey [at] minnpost [dot] com.