Engaging Arts: Engaging Age Friendly Communities

EngAGE is a non-profit that changes aging and the way people think about aging by transforming affordable senior apartment communities into vibrant centers of learning, wellness, and creativity. EngAGE took the spotlight during the second part of The Creative Age conference when Tim Carpenter, Founder and Director of EngAGE, delivered the second keynote session, focusing on his development of high quality arts programming for low income seniors.

Timothy Carpenter, Founder and Director, EngAGE

Timothy Carpenter, Founder and Director, EngAGE

Carpenter told the story of Suzanne Knode, who saw herself as more of an observer of life than a participant. At the age of 65, things changed for Knode. She sold her home, packed her things, and lived and worked in Europe for a while. After reading a story about the Burbanks Senior Artists Colony, the showpiece of EngAGE, she decided to go live there. During a writing course, she wrote a screenplay about an elderly woman who, walker and all, robs a 7-11 store. Last Gasp Productions produced the short film, Bandida, and residents of Burbanks Senior Artists Colony auditioned for parts. It premiered to an audience of 300 at Valley 2008 film festival.  Since then, Knode has also taken up painting. I sent her a friend request on Facebook in the hopes of asking her to illustrate one of the Invisible Poets’ stories. Visit this website again, and perhaps you will see her work.

In the video above, Knode describes a beautiful mind, saying, “I think it takes letting go of the past, and letting go of what you did before you became a senior, and let all that be on its own. Allow yourself to not be afraid, and just let it come to you. Do things that you wanted to do… doing something else.”

This really resonated with me, having spent a considerable amount of time with seniors who have Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias (ADRD). First and foremost, they are people with beautiful minds, but they are also people who have (perhaps unwittingly) let go of what they did before they became diagnosed. As the symptoms progress, most do learn to “let all that be on its own.” Based on my two years of research into ADRD, it seems to be the caregivers who have the hardest time letting go of the past and letting them be WHO THEY ARE NOW.

Through storytelling, even people in advanced stages of ADRD have the opportunity to flex their creative muscles, which for some, may be the first time they’ve done so in many decades prior to diagnosis. Just because people have ADRD, this doesn’t mean they can’t discover something new about themselves, such as creative abilities. According to a new study published in the Canadian Journal of Neurological Sciences, creative abilities are preserved in people with ADRD.

This article in the New York Times describes the Burbanks Senior Artists Colony and EngAGE. It also talks about Knode, whose quote is remarkably like the one at the end of the About page of this website:

All those years I spent thinking: “If I only knew then what I know now,” said Suzanne Knode, who counts “Bandida” — her first writing ever, at 63 — as the start of a new life.   “But I said, ‘Wait a minute. I know what I know now. And I’m still alive.'”

Carpenter wrote in a blog for Huffington Post,

The making of the film was documented by This American Life, the NPR radio show hosted by Ira Glass, for their TV show on Showtime depicting Suzanne’s late-life reinvention into an artist. Bandida also won into competition at the Valley Film Festival in the NoHo Arts District of Los Angeles, where Suzanne watched for the first time the premiere of her film at the El Portal Theater with an audience of more than 300 people, for which she received a standing ovation. Suzanne’s life has been transformed and she continues to write, has taken up painting and filmmaking and mentors at-risk teens in her neighborhood. Here is what she said when profiled on the Experience Talks radio show: “I couldn’t believe that there would be a community for me at this time in my life. I didn’t think I’d be able to find something new inside of me. You know that same feeling when you got out of school and the whole world was open to you? Now, all over again, the whole world is open to me.”

EngAGE also offer programs in Noho Senior Arts Colony, the Long Beach Senior Arts Colony, and The Road Senior Company. NoHo Senior Arts Colony is where the Whittier homeowner Angela McEwan rents an apartment to be closer to Hollywood audition sites. Carpenter told the story of McEwan, who spent most of her adult life as a criminal court Spanish translator. From Los Angeles Daily News:

McEwan initially went to a “Nebraska” cattle call audition for the role of Woody’s wife Kate, which ultimately went to veteran actress June Squibb. Six months later, McEwan was called back to read for Peg. Six months after that, she was notified that director Alexander Payne was in town for the weekend and wanted to meet her.

…the director told her, “I wanted to meet you before I offered you such an important part.”

“That was how he asked, and of course I said ‘yeah,’ ” McEwan recalled…

“I was in the Brea Christmas Parade as a local celebrity,” she summed up. “When they introduced me, they asked, ‘Do you have a statement?’ I said, ‘It’s never too late to follow your dreams.’ That’s my motto.”

Angela McEwan Nebraska

Angela McEwan, Actress (Nebraska)

Clarence Johnston, a world-renowned jazz drummer, facilitates drum workshops and jazz history lessons with EngAGE communities. From MMA Media:

Clarence has become an enthusiast for the young up-and-coming jazz musicians. Even as people “sweep Jazz under the rug” Clarence sees jazz making a comeback someday and thinks that it will continue to “flourish.” By playing with and teaching new musicians, Clarence has noticed that these youngsters are catching on and have a great amount of ability. Though he is shocked at how, “we’ve had some great musicians in our country, and its amazing how the people here don’t really, really appreciate it.” Throughout his career, Clarence has performed around the world and states “that Jazz is recognized as one the only ‘true American’ music styles,” which he thinks might be enjoyed more abroad than in this country. He is also worried about current “electronic music” that is created by “pushing a button” as opposed to instrumental compositions. Even if African-American music, like hip/hop, has taken over the popularity jazz once held, Clarence has not abandoned his beloved music.

Clarence Johnston

Clarence Johnston, Jazz Drummer, Drum Workshops and Jazz History Lesson Facilitator, EngAGE

The session included a moderator, speakers, and respondent (respectively):

Sandra Crewe

Sandra Crewe, Dean of Social Work, Howard University

Stacey Cooper McMath

Stacey Cooper McMath, Director, Programs, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs

Gail Kohn

Gail Kohn, Coordinator, Age Friendly DC, Office of the Mayor

Margaret B. Neal

Margaret B. Neal, Director/Professor Institute on Aging, School of Community Health, Portland State University, Age Friendly Portland

Mario Garcia Durham

Mario Garcia Durham, President and CEO, Association of Performing Artists and Presenters

Carpenter’s presentation brought to life the vision of EngAGE, “to make aging a beginning by providing life-enhancing programs to low-income seniors living in affordable apartment communities to give them the opportunity to continue to grow intellectually, creatively and emotionally.” The Invisible Poets (Alzheimer Chronicles, Inc) also hopes to create new beginnings and opportunities to grow. So many people see ADRD as an end to the person who is diagnosed with it, but if creative abilities are retained, then through creative expression, people with ADRD can, like those in the stories Carpenter shared, follow their dreams as storytellers.


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