Sparking the Arts for Seniors

by Melissa Smith, Creative Connections Director

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There are not often opportunities in life to play a role in the creation of something wonderful, impactful, and that can change hundreds of lives for the better. I feel fortunate to now know what that feels like. Research shows that participating in the arts and intergenerational activities during the aging years improves socialization, autonomy, well-being, and quality of life. In fact, this data has been an influential driver in the creation of the Intergenerational Center for Arts and Wellness (Generations Center) which will bring creative and health-based programs to area seniors in the fall. This data also provided inspiration for the creation of Senior Services’ newest program, Creative Connections. The program offers arts-based classes at no cost to seniors in the surrounding underserved Boston-Thurmond neighborhood and to other seniors in Forsyth County. In 2022, Senior Services converted an underutilized space in our current administrative building into our Creative Connections studio where seniors can come to our campus and participate in something that has been inaccessible to many older adults within the surrounding community–arts programming.

It was thrilling when the Sawtooth School for Visual Arts, one of our first community partners in the up-and-coming Generations Center, partnered with us to offer visual arts classes in the new Creative Connections arts studio in February of 2022. Over the following months, we added acting lessons taught by Board Members of 40+ Stage Company, hand drum lessons led by a local percussionist, and even more visual art classes taught by professional artists affiliated with The Sawtooth School.

This new initiative immediately attracted a diverse group of older adults from across the community. After witnessing the promising results of our first few months of operation we wanted to reach and serve even more seniors. The North Carolina Arts Council encouraged us to apply for their Spark the Arts grant, an initiative that seeks to literally spark the arts for communities not typically reached by arts programming and include and employ a diverse group of artists, under the “Inclusion” category. With the help of The Arts Council of Winston-Salem, various networks within the community, connecting with artists of color across many genres, and with letters of support from local artists and community organizations, we were awarded the funding for the 2022-2023 fiscal year in late Summer of 2022, to the delight of the Creative Connections team. What happened next was nothing short of magical.

Talia Scott, a former Senior Services Art Therapy Intern, and Boston-Thurmond native, was enlisted to teach a very popular Neo-Expressionism class. Nathan Ross-Freeman, co-founder of Authoring Action, was lined up to teach creative writing. Corlis Sellers, local actress and 40+ Stage Company Board Chair, was slotted to teach acting lessons.  Several artists from the Sawtooth School, including Marlene Kuser, a jewelry maker, Lauranita Katande, a fabric artist, and Bill Gramley, a chalk-pastel artist, to name a few, agreed to teach a visual arts class, once a month, under the leadership of Betsy Messick, Director of Art and Wellness. We also recruited Chi Sharpe, a local percussionist who has toured with the late, great, Harry Belafonte, to teach hand drum and percussion lessons.

The impact on older adults in our community was immediate. Sawtooth classes filled to capacity as seniors, many of whom had never taken an art class, found not only that they could create art but that participating in the classes was calming and healing. After taking her first round of acting lessons, one student landed a role in a local theatre festival and is now very active in the local theatre community.  Chi’s percussion classes were so inspiring that students set up a public performance at Senior Services. Through Nathan’s creative writing classes, people with no prior writing experience penned meaningful and touching essays and gained the confidence to perform their pieces in front of an audience. As a result of the Creative Connections artistic classes many of the seniors who had reported feeling isolated and depressed began feeling connected and purposeful and more than a few said the classes had changed their lives.

On June 21, we capped off the Spark the Arts grant period with a gathering of teachers, students, staff, friends, family, community members, and representatives from the Sawtooth School and the NC Arts Council. The event was nothing short of a celebration! Attendees were welcomed by a festive drum circle of students led by Chi. Students felt proud to exhibit examples of their artwork, confidently perform acting monologues, and read essays they created during their class sessions. A few shared testimonials about the impact participating in the classes had on them, and the friendships that they have made. Several instructors talked about their experiences working with these talented seniors and how they learned as much as they taught.

I’m proud to have played a role in the development and implementation of this program that has given additional purpose and meaning to over 100 older adults. I understand the role artistic endeavors can play in their lives and experience great joy knowing that 94% of the Creative Connections participants reported that their class helped them express themselves in a different way and that 89% of them will seek out art activities again.

The Creative Connections program will continue to expand its reach as part of the Generations Center which opens this fall. Many former and current students have shared their thoughts and suggestions during planning and listening sessions about how we can continue to innovate and improve our programming. There is a growing feeling of trust, belonging, and ownership among the older adults who have participated in our program and that’s exactly what we want.

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