Blending the Art and Science of Senior Creativity: The First NCCA “Leadership Exchange” Conference in Washington, D.C.

I knew I would be taking notes for this blog and just as I pulled out my notebook and pen, two men propelled on to the stage dressed in form fitting pants and similarly snug tee shirts, wearing the soft-soled shoes characteristic of jazz and modern dance performance.  “Curious,” I observed. The noticeably older man, white haired and soft-spoken, began to gesture, recite prose and dance in carefully placed steps within a small radius. Following close behind was a contrastingly young man repeating the same words and routine. A stark, emotional, and powerful message about creativity, the human body and the aging paradox took place with little need for an introduction or explanation. This event served to transport the audience to the very same page, and thus the keynote talk began.

“Leadership Exchange” is a fitting title for the central day of the NCCA conference, held in Washington, D.C. on June 12, 2014. According to the program description, “each session is born of vision, practice, collaboration, and a good dose of improvisation.” Rather than the science-heavy meetings I typically attend, this day promised and delivered through engaging and sometimes spontaneous material that melded the art and the science of creative aging.

Marc Agronin, M.D., geriatric psychiatrist, took a broad-brush approach in his keynote address and paid tribute to Gene Cohen, M.D., Ph.D., who’s writing and philosophy helped shape NCCA’s early vision and mission. This first NCCA conference marks the 5th anniversary of Cohen’s death. Focusing on developmental theories of aging, Agronin presented various viewpoints from Cicero to Freud, Erickson and Cohen. To my delight, he concentrated on the strengths of aging: neuroplasticity, maturity, and creativity. He made the point that “Not in spite of age, but because of aging we become more creative.”

Gay Hannah, NCCA Executive Director echoed his views when she expressed the societal goal, and professional need, to shift from loss to the “dynamic potential of aging. “ Susan Perlstein, MSW and founder of NCCA, remarked, “Older people are the keepers of the culture,” amply demonstrating one key value that seniors bring to the table, and a challenge for science to continue its focus on the quality of long-life. The tone for the day was set.

Being a respondent during the very first session on the research track, gave me, and all in attendance, a state-of-the-science overview. And for those inclined, the research track continued throughout the day with various presentations of the science so necessary as the foundation for building other kinds of programming.

While we intuitively know that theater classes, modern dance and memoir writing programs provide cognitive stimulation, it is nonetheless necessary to have proof through double-blind experiments and longitudinal studies in order to provide the rationale for adoption by managers of senior centers, assisted living programs and other organizations that require funding for creativity platforms that work.

There was no shortage of experimental designs. One afternoon program featured the NIH sponsored, 5-year study taking place at the University of California San Francisco, under the supervision of Julene Johnson, Ph.D., where seniors commit to being in a chorus for a year. On the same program Samira Anderson, Ph.D., discussed how “music training helps hearing and memory.”

Many of the presentations were primarily creativity/arts based and fun not only for participants back home where the classes are based, but also for conference attendees who got to experience some hands-on, tactile activities. It’s ironic that with dementia some inhibition fades so that even those who were afraid to pursue the arts when they were younger may now be willing to give it a try —something for everyone. No one gets left out!

Widening the scope of programming still further, residential communities and whole cities committed to seniors and the arts had a chance to present their ideas. Tim Carpenter touted the benefits of living in a low income, apartment complex designed around senior artists. He created the first of these projects in Burbank, CA and the format has begun to catch on around the country. Tim described one of his residents who came to his Senior Artist’s Colony with an idea to write a short story, but no training or history as a writer.  Her story led to a screenplay, directed by her, and later a documentary about her.

Margaret Neal, Ph.D., of Portland State University said that her city in Oregon wondered, “What characteristics make a city feel age-friendly?” This question led to the goal of trying to make it happen—focusing on the strengths of seniors, not their weaknesses.  New York City is trying to do something similar by placing artists at senior residences throughout the city where they can work, rent free, and teach. Over 1000 such classes were offered in 2013. The program will be extended to 50 more residences in 2015!

The day’s summing up arrived much too quickly but by 6 pm our heads were crammed with information and our hearts were full with the joy of creative possibilities. While preaching to the choir, it is apparent that creative endeavors enhance the quality of life. As the author of The Vintage Years: Finding Your Inner Artist (Writer, Musician, Visual Artist) After Sixty, I was excited to see that so many of my colleagues were disseminating a similar message, in a myriad of ways.

The beauty of the conference, according to Gay Hanna, was the integration of science and art voices—the beginning of a dialogue that will continue formally and informally—supporting a paradigm shift—viewing aging creatively.

By line: Francine Toder, Ph.D., is the author of The Vintage Years: Finding Your Inner Artist (Writer, Musician, Visual Artist) After Sixty (2013). She is an emeritus faculty member at California State University Sacramento and a clinical psychologist recently retired from private practice. Toder is also the author of When Your Child Is Gone: Learning to Live Again and, Your Kids Are Grown: Moving On With and Without Them. She resides in the San Francisco Bay Area and practices the cello daily. You can contact her at francine@docToder.com, find her on Twitter @DocToder or follow her at Huffington Post 50. 

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