NEA Arts Magazine

A Place of Possibilities

EngAGE Provides Arts Programming in Senior Housing

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An elderly man playing violin to a couple of children.

An EngAGE musician shows his skills to the young.

When Caroline McElroy moved into the NoHo Senior Arts Colony, she never imagined it meant speeding up, rather than slowing down. Although in the golden years of retirement, she teaches school on-site at Universal Studios, recently had an art exhibit open up in the NoHo gallery, and was planning an upcoming flight to Paris with friend and Nebraska film star, Angela McEwan. While there, McElroy hoped to find inspiration and pick up a few vintage Parisian magazines from the flea markets for her next creative endeavor.

Her lifestyle in many ways has been made possible by the nonprofit organization EngAGE. Based in Burbank, California, EngAGE provides arts, wellness, lifelong learning, and intergenerational programs to affordable senior apartment communities throughout southern California. It attempts to even the playing field so that seniors can remain active, vibrant, and grow, giving them the control to age the way they want to age. Gone are images of patio homes, shuffleboard, rocking chairs, golf carts, and bingo in the common room. Instead of slowing down and taking it easy, EngAGE has revitalized the aging process by providing free arts programming for apartment communities that contain performing arts theaters, visual arts studios, literary studios, and digital arts/business labs.

The idea for EngAGE developed when founder and Executive Director Tim Carpenter was working in the healthcare and aging industry, trying to change a broken system. Yet he did not see the social transformation he so desired. When he met developer John Huskey from Meta Housing Corporation, who, as Carpenter stated, “was building really good-looking senior apartment communities,” the two partnered up to try something new. “We started experimenting and doing stuff and throwing lots of spaghetti against the wall, and some of it stuck. And we continue to do it that way. We try almost everything. We say yes to everything,” said Carpenter.

Intergenerational group playing drums.

An intergenerational drum circle at the Burbank Senior Artists Colony, led by Clarence Johnson (right), a resident at the NoHo Senior Arts Colony.

The first experiment was a writing class at a senior apartment building. The class ended with a public reading of the participants’ work. The older students felt their stories were cool and worth telling as they presented them at the local community center to fellow residents, family members, housing developers, and community members. This culminating event was the important catalyst for what would eventually become EngAGE. It was a hit. It changed the dynamic. It got people talking. It got people engaged. The students were involved in something new, personal, and meaningful, and had brought their community together to share in their creative experience.

With NEA support, the organization today provides a wide range of free on-site lifelong learning opportunities in three established senior artists colonies—Burbank Senior Artists Colony, NoHo Senior Arts Colony, and the Long Beach Senior Arts Colony—and at more than 30 senior apartment communities across southern California. Ninety-five percent of the population EngAGE serves is low-income, spanning various ethnic backgrounds. Arts activities include writing and performing plays, claymation, filmmaking, graphic novel writing, sculpting, painting, storytelling for radio, language class, art shows, dance classes, social media, gardening, cooking, and chorus. Residents are surrounded by quality arts programming, learning opportunities, and state-of-the-art facilities.

Research studies have shown that staying active as we age, as McElroy has, means we will lead healthier lives. Participation in arts programming by older adults has been linked to improved cognitive functioning, memory, and overall well-being. Paraphrasing the late Gene Cohen, primary investigator of the 2006 NEA-supported Creativity and Aging study, if you could bottle up the benefits of arts participation—which include disease prevention, health promotion, and maintaining independence—into a digestible pill, it would save billions in Medicare costs. Further, as Carpenter said, the arts can serve as a “starter drug” for other good habits, like eating healthier and exercising. Further, the layout and design of residential facilities for older adults can impact the social interaction, physical activity, cognitive stimulation, and emotional well-being of the residents, as discussed in the NEA publication The Arts and Aging: Building the Science.

 EngAGE and the senior artist colonies combine both arts participation and facility design to provide stimulating, interesting, and social living environments for older adults. Colonies are thoughtfully designed by Meta, and then allowed to thrive through EngAGE’s high-quality and diverse artistic programming. People want to get up, go out, and join in. As Carpenter explained it, “having a building without programs is like having a computer without software. You have to program what you want to have happen there.”

“You have this great synergy of the physical amenities with the intellectual ones,” Carpenter continued. “And so that tends to be powerful within the community itself. It also becomes an attractor to people from the outside community…to have a place where people want to go to learn because it’s a beautiful building and there are interesting people living there.”

Case in point: Caroline McElroy. McElroy is not only an artist in “permanent residence” at NoHo with a designated studio space in her apartment, but also a teaching artist. Each week she teaches a collage class for fellow residents at NoHo. McElroy intends for this class traditionally to go for an hour and a half, but “then other days when I have the class we can go for hours,” she said. “We get lost in our work. Because you know it’s also a good time for us to chitchat and get to know each other, and visit and share ideas.”

Men in a computer arts class looking at computer.

Residents at NoHo Senior Arts Colony enjoy a computer arts class.

Located in North Hollywood, NoHo Senior Arts Colony boasts classes and amenities traditionally only available at universities or major arts organizations. This includes a stadium-style performing arts theater located in NoHo’s lobby that also serves as the second home for the Road Theatre Company. The Road Theatre, a professional theater company, was selected through an arts retention program by the City of Los Angeles to occupy the site. The public enters the NoHo lobby’s gallery, waiting to see a show, and mingles in front of the exhibits and artwork of residents and collaborators. McElroy joked about how when seeing a Road Theatre production at the NoHo, she just happened to sit next to Rita Wilson and Tom Hanks. On the other side of her was friend McEwan, about whom she stated, “If it wasn’t for all of the programs that were offered here and this place didn’t exist, I never would have met her.”

You don’t have to be a professional artist to live or participate in the EngAGE’s programming at one of the senior residential communities or artists colonies—they offer a flexible and collective learning experience for all involved: novices and artists alike. In Carpenter’s view, retirement is like college. It’s a new phase in one’s life when you are trying to figure out what to do next. It is a time to try, and potentially fail, at new things. It can be a launching point, with the spare time to attempt something different, revisit an old passion, or continue a lifelong endeavor. For EngAGE, having college-style semester classes, with culminating events such as exhibits or performances, provides the students a sense of growth and mastery. Students can build on their knowledge of a subject, or start from scratch. It is only the beginning of something, not the end.

McElroy summed it up: “It is a place of possibilities. My son-in-law goes, ‘So how long do you plan on living here?’ and I said, ‘Honey, they’re going to have to carry me out of here.’”

Photos courtesy of EngAGE