Megan Whilden: Berkshires could use more creative aging programs

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This fall, I was fortunate to attend a series of Creative Aging workshops in Austin, Texas, as part of a Catalyzing Creative Aging cohort funded by Aroha Philanthropies.

OLLI, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Berkshire Community College, was one of only 20 organizations across the country chosen to be part of this cohort.

We learned about the groundbreaking research of professor Gene Cohen, who demonstrated through rigorous research how intensive arts learning programs had strikingly positive impacts on older adults who participated. Doctor Cohen, a psychiatrist and gerontologist, wrote the books "The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain" (Basic Books, 2006) and "The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life" (William Morrow, 2001).

We discussed the building blocks of excellent arts education programs for older adults, including sustained engagement, well-trained teaching artists, and equity in accessibility. What works best? Not random drop-in programs, but serious, focused, sequential skills building taught by teaching artists, whether its singing or watercolors, poetry or improv.

We heard about inspiring pilot programs across the country, from community choruses in Spanish, Tagalog, Chinese and English in senior centers all across San Francisco, to a theater company for performers 50 and older. And we visited one in a historically black neighborhood of Austin, where participants created a colorful mural based on their memories and experiences in their neighborhood.

We took a deep dive into the topic of ageism, and how unconscious bias against older adults has prevented funders, artists and art schools from fully and fearlessly engaging with and supporting older adults. We looked within to see that ageism is a bias against our future selves, and ageism is everywhere in our society.

Best of all, we created together, experiencing the bonding that occurs when making art with others, perhaps the most important lesson of all as we respond to the epidemic of loneliness challenging the health of older adults and people of all ages.

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I came back energized and inspired, ready to help lead the charge in the Berkshires for arts education for older adults throughout the county. Fortunately, good work is already being done in this area, especially intergenerationally: WAM Theatre's Elder Ensemble, which brings women 65 and better together with teens to create devised theater, a collaboration between young dance students from Pulse and Kimball Farms residents, and community ensembles created by Jacob's Pillow and Williamstown Theatre Festival. But there's much more that we can do!

In recent years, OLLI has expanded its programming to include more hands-on arts education, from our writing classes — one of which organized a spoken word performance at the end of the course — to our very active play-reading group, which may soon blossom into a theater company. We were excited to be a founding partner in Williamstown Theatre Festival's groundbreaking Community Works initiative, where OLLI members have performed on the `62 Center stage with professional actors and community members of all ages.

This fall we piloted adult music education classes with Berkshire Music School (ukulele anyone?) and hope to roll out more. And our annual art show featuring the creative artworks by OLLI members was bigger and better attended than ever this year.

The joy that making art brings you, whether it's music or painting or theater or photography or dance or creative writing or what have you, is a lifelong joy, and it is never too late to begin to learn a new arts discipline.

I wonder why we don't see more arts education especially for older adults here in the Berkshires where we have a rapidly aging population and a rich array of arts and cultural organizations. I can think of no better place in America than the Berkshires for creative aging programs to flourish.

The opportunity is here to do so much more — to go beyond seeing older adults as passive arts consumers and invite them to take an active part in the creativity we excel at here in the Berkshires.

As the world, and the Berkshires, grow older — a trend that is here to stay — let's adapt and celebrate. Let's ensure that arts education is age-friendly too. Creativity is for everyone. I'll see you in the studio!

Megan Whilden is executive director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Berkshire Community College. She can be reached at mwhilden@berkshirecc.edu.


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