How to Age Artfully

On Wed, Aug. 8, I attended Aging Artfully, an event sponsored by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, featuring panels, exhibits and a special film screening of My Annie Hall, a 30 minute parody of Woody Allen’s classic movie starring two members of a Manhattan senior center.

Except possibly for my skills in nature and landscape photography, I’ve never really considered myself as an artist.  I imagine that many seniors also feel that it would be futile to begin a new arts activity since they lack the necessary talent.  But as I learned at this event, everyone can benefit from the arts, and there are multiple health benefits from doing so.

In the Creativity and Aging Study done in 2006, Dr. Gene Cohen demonstrated that ‘community-based cultural programs for older adults appear to reduce risk factors that drive the need for long-term care.’  For those engaged in arts activities, there were  overall improvements in health as well as reduced levels of doctor visits, prescription / over-the-counter medication usage and falls.  Additional studies described here have repeated these findings,  including the 2017 report Staying Engaged: Health Patterns of Older Americans Who Engage in the Arts.

At this week’s event, I attended a session led by Ed Friedman, Executive Director and co-founder of Lifetime Arts, an organization focused on “enriching the lives of older adults through arts education.”  I asked whether it was better to pick an arts activity that we once enjoyed earlier in life, or if we could get similar benefits from starting something new.  He replied that both would work fine and that we shouldn’t hesitate to pick something that we haven’t done before.  The benefits come from the activity, not from having to attain a certain level of talent.  In NYC, public libraries are a great place to find arts activities.  (It is ideal to join classes as this also provides a way to interact with others and with your community.) View Ed’s presentation Creative Aging in Community Settings.

A few of the wonderful programs / nonprofits described at the event:

  • Su Casa, which provides teaching artists at senior center
  • Young at Heart Chorus, featured in this documentary
  • Music and Memory, which helps the memory impaired with personalized music
  • Arts and Minds, which improves the quality of life of those with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias by engaging with art
  • Dances for a Variable Population, which promotes strong and creative movement among adults of all ages and abilities

As we age, we accumulate a vast amount of stories and experience which are important for others to hear and benefit from.  Arts are a great way to that.  So as challenged by Jorge Merced, board member of the National Center for Creative Aging during the keynote panel presentation, “What type of arts will you engage in this week?” If the first activity you choose doesn’t hold your interest, choose something else – there’s much to select from.  Yes, you can be an artist and no previous experience is required.

Need more encouragement? Attend the Symposium for Positive Aging at the JCC Manhattan on Mon, Oct 22.

The UnLonely Project

Recently I became aware of the UnLonely Project from the Foundation for Art and Healing, which is intended to:

  • raise awareness of loneliness as a significant health problem and promote artistic expression as an approach to alleviate it.
  • offer tools, resources and programs to reduce loneliness through creative approaches
  • stimulate further research into how loneliness can be reduced

While this initiative is not specifically targeted towards seniors, this is an issue that especially affects this population.  It is especially poignant to explore the Second Annual UnLonely Interactive Filmfest which offers many short films which can be streamed free, all focused on how loneliness affects us.  (You can also filter the films by topic, so you can pick ‘older adults’ to view shorts about seniors.)

Many of these films are difficult to watch.  Especially sad is Bonnie and Mark (9:48) which describes how a seemingly perfect relationship suddenly faces a major challenge soon after the couple marries.  Try to view Changing Batteries (5:33) without tearing up at the end.

There’s no easy answer to this problem, but you can take this small action recommended in the final paragraph of this recent article by Next Avenue:  “This week, find at least one older adult in your midst and take a little time to learn more about him or her. ” You might be helping that person so much more than you realize.

Why a Senior Is Not Only What You See

Here at the Mayflower - Barry Manilow album 2001When you look at an older person, you probably notice the grey hair, wrinkles and other visible signs of aging.  Based on that, you may assume that they are limited in what they can do, and that their opinions no longer are as valuable as that of a younger person, even though they have considerably more life experience.  You may also think that they are probably like other seniors you have met.

Think again.

Listen to this video of a 2001 song by Barry Manilow, Not What You See, from his album Here at the Mayflower.  It’s about a couple in a senior facility where the husband is caring for his wife who has experienced some health challenges.  The song narrator, speaking to a younger person, explains how he remembers his wife and that he still sees her that way now.  He understands that she’s still the same person inside, even though she may have changed in physical appearance or in what she’s able to do.

Some lyrics from the song:

I’ll bet you think that what you’re looking at
Is all we are
Two old people
Stumbling through the days
Sonny, no one is what
They look like
Everyone’s so much more
Sonny, no one is what
They look like
And we’re not what you see
That’s for sure

If, like me, maybe you’re lucky to have a few friends who you’ve known since you attended school.  Are they very different from when you met?  Do you notice the exterior, or do you still think of them as the same person they’ve always been?

Take the time to get to know an older person.  Seniors are very diverse, so don’t assume they’re like anyone else you’ve met or heard about.  Breaking out of the pattern of only socializing with your own age group will add depth to your personal relationships, and allow you to benefit from the wisdom of elders.

Org Profile – Selfhelp Community Services

(This is the second of a series of posts profiling senior services nonprofits which are helping older persons to live active, engaged lives.)

Most of us who interact with seniors understand how challenging it can be as we have an increasingly smaller circle of family and friends as we grow older.   Fortunately, many resources are available to reduce isolation for seniors, and multiple nonprofit programs specifically target that goal.  But it is even more difficult when physical disabilities make it hard for an older person to visit a senior center or engage in other social activities.

Virtual Senior CenterSince 2014, I have volunteered as a facilitator for the Virtual Senior Center (VSC), an innovative program developed by Selfhelp Community Services.  At least once a month, I lead a virtual class from my computer on topics such as nutrition / health, book reviews, and celebrating the holidays when you’re alone.  (Unlike a typical webinar, everyone is able to see each other during the class.) My ‘students’ mostly live in New York and Long Island, but the VSC is also available to seniors in Baltimore and Chicago – and soon to other cities.  Many have developed friendships with each other which extend beyond the classes, even though most have never met in person.

But the VSC is only one of Selfhelp’s programs.  Created in 1936 to help those fleeing Nazi Germany to adapt to living in America, today Selfhelp continues to provides the largest range of services to Holocaust survivors in North America.  Selfhelp also manages 10 affordable apartment buildings, manages 5 Senior Centers, offers an Alzheimer’s Social Adult Day Care Program , employs 1,800 home health care workers, and provides services for seniors living in Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities.

At its senior housing units, Selfhelp provides services uses the Selfhelp Active Services for Aging Model – which is designed to enable a vibrant, engaged community of older adults.   Providing these services also can result in better health outcomes.  Read more.

Of the many ways that I try to help older persons to live well, my role as a VSC teacher is probably my favorite.  While the main goal is to build community, I try to choose topics which will encourage seniors to live well, regardless of whatever health challenges they may be facing.  Next week, for example, my class will focus on John Leland’s book and Sky Bergman’s film, featured in my recent post, Lessons Learned from Older Persons.  Not surprisingly, during my VSC classes I often learn more from my students than whatever they learn from me.

How to Be Creative At Any Age

After older adults retire, they are often faced with the problem of what to do with their free time.  For many, creative activities can be a great option.

When faced with the requirements of a full time job, many adults forget to make time for hobbies they used to enjoy.  Some don’t even try to engage in creative activities, feeling that they don’t have enough talent or ability.  Happily, retirement allows anyone to discover the joy of creativity, and prior experience is not a requirement.

Happy Anniversary CardRecently, I had the pleasure of dining with Iris Farber, who I attended synagogue with for several years when I lived in Westchester County, NY.  Especially since her dear husband Izzy passed away, has actively pursued a variety of creative activities, such as designing watercolor greeting cards (see above) and writing short stories (see below).  She is 82, and I imagine is just as creative now as when she was younger, if not more so.

The Day I Almost Burned My Building Down
by Iris Farber

I am a morning person, and always have been.  I am always bright-eyed and bushy tailed at 5 A. M.  By the time I have had a cup of coffee I am eager to get started on anything I consider to be a productive endeavor. It might be doing laundry, cooking, or going out to do errands, I am sure you get the picture. Many people can’t stand me when they learn this about me, but heck that’s who I am.

Last Sunday morning was no different. Needing to prepare two noodle puddings, one for a special synagogue lunch and the other for a writing class reunion, I decided today was the day for making at least one and freezing it for use within the next couple weeks.

Still in my nightgown and with hands that would have passed operating room regulations for cleanliness, I got out the bowls, the mixer the two measuring cups (I always use two), the ingredients, etc. This is a recipe I have used for almost sixty years. It is often requested. Someone recently referred to it as my signature dish. After assembling the dish, which contains cottage cheese, sour cream, eggs, noodles, of course and lots and lots of butter, I decided to bake it in a large Pyrex baking dish, one I have owned for many years.  Sometimes I use disposable foil pans, but the pans I had recently purchased just did not look big enough. Besides, it makes a nicer presentation in the glass pan.

I carefully placed the dish in the pre-heated oven and still in my nightgown rinsed all the dishes, put them in the dishwasher, straightened the kitchen and proceeded to have another cup of coffee while reading a section of, the just delivered, New York Times. Before too long the timer on the oven, that I had set for one hour sounded its bell, signaling me to return to the kitchen to check the progress of the pudding. I found the kitchen rapidly filling with smoke, and a glance into the window of the oven showed me it was filled with flames. Now, I did remember not to open the oven door, which could spread the fire, but I panicked and called 911 and asked them to send the Fire Department. I had no idea what was going to happen next, but I was taking no chances. I also telephoned Gus our super, who arrived in a flash.

I was somewhat upset because I was still in the nightgown, and my ratty old summer robe, uncombed hair and, heaven’s, my bedroom door was open, and I had not yet made my bed. No one ever sees me, or my home. looking like that.

Nevertheless, I was very pleased to have Gus there for moral support.  The flames began to subside, and then they just, died out. Crisis over! I removed the pudding from the oven, it looked just fine, and as I always do with hot baked goods I placed it on the butcher-block cart opposite the window.  Gus said, “That looks good.”

At that moment I heard the sirens. I looked out the kitchen window, and was shocked, that they had sent three fire trucks, but the firemen were sauntering toward the building, they weren’t running the way the do on one of my favorite TV shows “Chicago Fire.” By the time they got to my apartment I was extremely embarrassed about wasting their time. They were very polite, and one said, “That’s our job Mam, it’s ok. He then added as he glanced at the still cooling pudding, “That looks good.”

I have made this dish at least 500 times in the last sixty years. I felt I could make it blindfolded Aha, that was the problem, I did not consult the recipe, and realized later, I must have added too much butter. Undoubtedly, that is why the batter ran over onto the floor of my beautiful Bosch stove, of which I am very proud. I usually keep it clean by wiping up all spills every time I use it.

Later, after the oven cooled, I cleaned it up as best I could but now I am facing the task of having to use the self-cleaning feature. I am afraid of that feature. I am unreasonably suspicious of anything that includes high heat and a lock that cannot be opened for three hours

I have informed my friend, Ellen, who lives across the hall, to check on me this evening when I plan to invoke the self-cleaning feature. Ellen thinks my attitude toward this is hilarious, she often cleans her oven that way. Thanks goodness for Ellen, she sometimes has the task of keeping me sane.

The neighbors are still buzzing about it. I am embarrassed about all this unwelcome attention, but happy there were no terrible consequences.

Now my dilemma is, should I serve this pudding? Someone suggested I taste a small piece first, but with a piece missing, it would not make a nice presentation.  I have decided to take my chances.

(New York City born and bred, Iris volunteers at the New York Botanical Garden and her local community hospital.  One of her favorite pastimes has always been writing and she still takes writing classes regularly.  She has been published in the Patchwork Quilt series.  Always eager to learn new things her new passion is making personalized watercolor greeting cards for friends and family and is enrolled in an art class.   Iris has a son and five stepsons, three beautiful daughters-in-law and seven grandchildren all who she absolutely adores.   When not busy with her many activities, she spends time reading and is very well known at her local library as a frequent visitor.  Per Iris, “Keeping busy after being widowed twice is very important, staying home and feeling sorry for myself is one thing I will never do.”)

Lessons Learned from Older Persons

For the past two evenings, I enjoyed attending a talk and a film/discussion on what we can learn from older persons.

First, NY Times journalist John Leland discussed findings from his book, Happiness is a Choice You Make, where he discussed his year getting to know six elders 85 and over.  The event was sponsored by Coming of Age NYC, which also recorded a Facebook live video of John’s presentation (about an hour).  If you don’t have time to watch or read his book (but I encourage you to do so!), some of my major takeaways:

  • the amazing power of taking the time to remember what you are grateful for you in your life every day (no matter what your age) and appreciating what you already have (e.g. ‘think about what’s there, not what’s not’)
  • don’t try to ‘fix’ other people – it’s frustrating for them and for you.  John described how his relationship with his mom had improved after he stopped trying to encourage her to live differently
  • older persons are often in need of being useful, of knowing that others still value their opinions
  • having a purpose – a reason to get up in the morning – is essential, such as a commitment to a cause, to a family member or friend.  Purpose isn’t something you ‘find,’ it’s something you create
  • happiness is not something that either happens to you or not – it’s a decision you make to find ways to focus on what is good, regardless of your circumstances
  • people who take the time to help others often benefit more than the people they are helping
Lives Well Lived
Sky Bergman with her late grandmother

Then last night, director Sky Bergman presented her documentary film Lives Well Lived, celebrating the wisdom of adults 75-103 years old.  (The 103 year old was Sky’s grandmother, who sadly passed away shortly after she attended the debut of the film in which she stars.) There will be additional screenings through Wed, Jul. 25 at the JCC in Manhattan.  She interviewed forty people who shared their insights to a meaningful life:

  • Don’t try to change anyone – accept them as they are
  • To be open to finding love late in life after having lost previous partners
  • To be kind to others – such simple advice but often forgotten
  • I asked in the Q&A session on what we can do to change the perception that older adults’ lives are only about disease and illness.  Sky said that most of the elders she spoke to had their share of health challenges.  However, they chose to focus on what they could still do, not on what they couldn’t.  Some of the interviewees were still regularly active in artistic pursuits, and many continued to exercise regularly (one continued a lifelong love affair with yoga)
  • Remembering to live in the present

Don’t wait until you are in your later years to learn these lessons.  You probably have someone in your life now that you can speak to for more insights on how you can live well, no matter what your age.

Org Profile – OATS (Older Adults Technology Services)

(This is the first of a series of posts profiling senior services nonprofits which are helping older persons to live active, engaged lives.)

Multiple nonprofits which serve older persons seek to provide some type of help with technology.  In New York, and now increasingly beyond, the gold standard is currently set by Older Adults Technology Services (OATS).  Their flagship programs are the Senior Planet Exploration Center, located in Manhattan, and Senior Planet.org which provides a variety of online content directed to active seniors.

As I described in an earlier post, How to Design Technology Training for Seniors, teaching older persons involves a different skill set than when training people of other age groups.  In addition to classes at the Senior Planet Exploration Center, OATS has also assisted with developing programs for organizations such as the New York Public Library, Comcast and Capital One.

As OATS founder Tom Kamber explains in a blog post about his recent presentation at the Maryland Gerontological Association’s conference, OATS’ mission extends beyond teaching older adults how to use technology.  “To change the way we age, we also need to change the way the world views aging.”

Beyond the goal of making seniors more comfortable with technology, most  programs directed to older persons also seek to decrease isolation by increasing seniors’ engagement with each other and with the community.   We want to encourage older persons to continue to learn and to grow, no matter what their age.  As Tom explained at the conference, there is “never a moment in our lives when we can’t grow.”

While many of us work for very worthwhile causes, getting continuous funding is always a challenge.  Tom has been especially skilled in convincing funders on the importance of supporting senior focused initiatives, as evidenced by Senior Planet’s growth beyond New York to Maryland, recently launching in Florida by SoFIA and soon to be rolled out in Colorado.

If you’re not yet familiar with Tom’s organization, take time to explore the OATS and Senior Planet websites, or stop by the NYC flagship location in Chelsea for an example of what’s possible beyond the typical senior center.

How to Reframe our Older Years

Last night, for my monthly Virtual Senior Center class for Selfhelp Community Services, I reviewed the book, The End of Old Age by Dr. Marc E. Agronin.  The basic message: aging brings strength.  It isn’t only about decline and health challenges.  Dr. Agronin suggested we start to change our image of old age by taking note of others who are living, working, playing and serving vital roles in their communities.  (Don’t know where to find them?  Start at Growing Bolder.)

We say we want to live a long life, yet we see old age as our enemy.  “We want to get there, but we live in fear of what it will entail.”  Dr. Agronin asks an interesting question: if we were able to return to life at age 21, would we do it?  Although we would ‘be’ younger, we would lose all of the accumulated experience and wisdom we’ve gained over the years.  In last night’s class, most participants responded that they would prefer to remain at their current age.

“The experience of aging helps us to develop five core strengths: knowledge, judgment, empathy, creativity and insight.  Our ability to make the most practical and beneficial decisions depends upon and grows with these elements.  Put together, they compose the greatest gift of aging: wisdom – the ability to deftly apply our accumulated knowledge and experience to decision making.”

As of example of creativity in later years, Dr. Agronin talks about Henri Matisse, the famous French artist who did some of his best work at the end of life while dealing with severe disability.

Be careful about spending your time pining about life as it was when you were younger.  Nostalgia is “an emotional yearning for a place, time or circumstances from one’s past that one perceives to have brought great personal satisfaction, happiness and meaning.”  Dr. Agronin points out that our memory of past events may be quite different from how we actually experienced them at the time.

The author suggests that we adapt a ‘creative aging’ model offered by the late Dr. Gene Cohen:, that instead of focusing on what we can accomplish in spite of aging, but rather because of aging.   In summary, “We lose greatly when we cannot see the immense achievements and potential that people have in later life.  Such energy is usually there and quite active, but we too often fail to pay attention to it, revel in its role in our life, and feel gratitude for its existence.  When we denigrate aging and only see it as a time of decline and weakness, we rob ourselves of one of the most influential and powerful forces in our life.”

Note – the Virtual Senior Center provides ongoing education through an online platform for homebound seniors.  Get more information on this program.

Upcoming Senior Events in NYC

If you’re in the NYC area and are involved in caring for older family members or friends, these two senior related events taking place in the next week may be of interest:

Caregiver Expo 2018 – get information on how to care for yourself as you age and on resources helpful in caring for a family member or friend.  Also learn about free support services available from PSS Circle of Care.

Manhattan Senior Advocacy & Resource Fair – learn about community organizations, volunteer and advocacy opportunities, and resources for older adults in New York.  Representatives a wide range of senior focused nonprofits will be available to speak and share information about their services.

Registration for both events is free.  I plan to attend both events so hope to see you there.

Aging Mastery Program – What It Offers to Seniors

For those of us who have a different vision of retirement than living with illness and waiting for the end of life, the National Council on Aging has created the Aging Mastery Program (AMP), a series of 10 core classes which “provide participants with an overview of the challenges encountered while navigating life in old age and offer support to master new skills.”  The modules include:

  1. Navigating Longer Lives: the Basics of Aging Mastery
  2. Exercise
  3. Sleep
  4. Healthy Eating and Hydration
  5. Financial Fitness
  6. Advance Planning
  7. Healthy Relationships
  8. Medication Management
  9. Community Engagement
  10. Falls Prevention

View a description of the full curriculum.  There are also electives available in topics such as physical health (e.g. communicating with your doctor), financial health (e.g. whether or not to downsize your living situation) and life enrichment (e.g. strengthening intergenerational connections).

Some senior organizations I work with such as Dorot and Selfhelp Community Services provide wonderful ways to increase community engagement.  But many of us would benefit from this training, or at least get reminded of what we already know.  If you’re in NY, contact any organization below for more information on how to sign up for AMP:

If we’re fortunate enough to enjoy a long life, participating in programs like AMP will increase the odds that we’ll enjoy it as long as we can.

Addendum 7/11/18 – Also take a look at PSSLife! University, offered in NYC by Presbyterian Senior Services, which incorporates some components of the Aging Mastery Program.