Artists & Aging: Access, Storytelling & Change

The Artists & Aging pilot project was created by a partnership between the Citizens League and Springboard for the Arts in Minnesota, and supported by The Pluribus Project through their Narrative Collaboratory initiative, which supports citizen power by developing new narratives and tools for participating in policy change. Artist teams worked with aging communities on creative projects, holding critical conversations around the ideas of “home,” and sharing experiences and insights that can be translated to policy work. The idea of policy for this project came from the Citizens League’s inclusive definition, ranging from what gets discussed at dinner table to what gets decided in the Oval Office. The project was driven with the values and practices of artists as leaders in community engagement, that policies can be made incrementally,  and that policy made in families can translate to communities and vice versa – you can read more about the origins of the project here.

Projects that Shared Voice and Talent

Former President Barack Obama has stressed the importance each and every one of us – including artists, elderly, and politicians – in creating change for ourselves and one another. During a farewell speech at a Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on Friday, January 20, former President Barack Obama stated “…you went into communities that maybe you had never even thought about visiting and met people that on the surface seemed completely different than you — didn’t look like you or talk like you or watch the same TV programs as you. And yet, once you started talking to them, it turned out that you had something in common. And it grew and it built.”  The artists in this pilot project crossed boundaries of age, artistic practices, abilities and more to explore the connections between arts and policy through three meetings, project proposals, review, and implementation, and final reports. Artists, partners, and collaborators created, refined, and reflected on the project process together. Each project had both distinct components as well as shared areas across projects.  

Photographer Angela Jimenez led a photography and mural project with painter/mural instructor Olivia Levins Holden. Jimenez and Holden worked in collaboration with the Spanish Legacy Adult Day Care, a government-funded program that provides meals, services and activities to Latino elders.  This project focused on social connectivity and isolation among primarily Spanish-speaking Latino elders who have immigrated to Minnesota. The project was designed to engage with elders through painting, photographs and interviews to encourage their creativity, build relationships with one another and share their personal histories through art.

Playwright Amoke Kubat led a project with photographer Keegen Xavi and artist, teacher, and Oromo interpreter Sylvia Williams. They worked at Dickman Apartments, a Minneapolis Public Housing site, and in collaboration with Henry Crosby at Heritage Park YMCA. The project completed two photo portrait sessions, three art making workshops that facilitated sharing stories through the creation of scrapbooks, three group conversations about aging and policy, and a memorial dinner. The project focused on working with elderly residents to facilitate connections across groups and decrease social isolation through art.

The Kairos Alive! team, Maria Genné, Nicholas Pawlowski, Parker Genné, and Cristopher Anderson, collaborated with Dawn Simonson of the Metropolitan Area Agency on Aging on intergenerational interactive participatory dance, music, story and theater innovation, what they have titled the Intergenerational Dance Hall™. The team explored the question: “What happens to people engaged in our research based arts and health participation programs that positively changes and improves their lives, affects how they think about aging, how they interact and create relationships with other elders and how they think about their own aging?” 

Creative Responses to the Challenges of Accessibility

Through the Arts & Aging pilot projects, access emerged as a common issue. This included access to information and services for aging communities, access to provide those services to aging communities, and access to policy creation and change as artists.

Access to services is vital for both aging communities and those working with these communities. Jimenez shared that increasing Spanish language services would help the participants engage with one another in community-building activities while opening opportunities for others to become a part of the community through volunteering.

A need for services that recognize and support varying abilities in accessing the necessities of daily life was shared across multiple projects. Jimenez stressed, “It is hard to deal with disabilities: blindness, mobility limitations, etc. that emerge. And late in life, it’s hard to adapt and even harder to get around. Access to transportation is central to staying independent, and to thriving.” She was able to bring access to the arts to any who chose to participate, including participants who identified as blind. As Jimenez was exploring the varying levels of accessibility to services for aging communities, she was able to provide access to her avenue of serving through the arts.

Setting up trains at Dickman Apartments. Photo: Keegan Xavi
Setting up trains at Dickman Apartments. Photo: Keegan Xavi

Kubat shared great concern for access to the “invisible” policies and lack of services impacting herself and those she worked with during her project. There was overall confusion about agency as participants questioned, “Who is making these policies?  Where are the policies?  How do I fight for policy change?” Kubat shared that although many participants were interested in gaining resources for part-time work, transportation, food and community activities, many were not aware of policies, organizations, or services that impacted them as individuals or a community. Participants were focused on meeting day-to-day needs without a clear path to meet those needs.

Kubat shared that the creation and communication of policies was a constant challenge. A flyer about voting arrived four days after the election, notifications about building changes were shared in one language when the community shared many languages, and the primary means of communication was in written form when some residents were blind. Kubat became a hub for information and connection throughout the project stating, “There was no one accessible, so that is why I became accessible.”

The Kairos Alive! team stepped into a greater role with their own access to policy. The team shared, “Our understanding of our relationship to policy has changed dramatically as a result of this project. Pahoua Yang Hoffman’s description of policymaking as starting at the kitchen table and individual decision-making brought this home to us, and gave us a sense of empowerment both individually and as an organization.”  Their Arts and Health/Creative Aging work has been grounded in connections to policy change by providing opportunities for individuals to make decisions towards more active and creative lifestyles that value elders. This project helped them  build upon this grounded work with new partners.

One way the team built upon their history of work with artists and aging was to respond to Hoffman’s challenge to create a “recipe” for their work. They have created a preliminary “recipe” with staff and board members. The team was thrilled to share that, “Now, in addition to the intrinsic benefits of performing arts creation, we better understand how our work creates trust in individuals and groups, and provides a shared vocabulary for and encourages individual, family and organization decision-making toward healthy active creative aging.”  They are incorporating the lessons, applications, and experience of this project into the future of their programs.

Storytelling as Social Connection

As in the case of policy creation and implementation with aging communities, many aging communities faced the same issue: invisibility.  “Once they retire, and start living alone, we don’t see them. We don’t interact with them. We simplify them or don’t think of them at all,” Jimenez stated.She experienced many people living in social isolation and in situations that were very different from what they had known for most of their lives. 

Social connection, relationships between individuals and groups, is crucial to people of all ages. Wilder Research discusses social connection as “networks formed among people with very different social backgrounds or levels of power, such as policy makers and their constituents.” Wilder Research also shows that social connection can have direct impacts on health including lower blood pressure and improved immune systems which help to prevent chronic disease. It can also have positive indirect effects including connection to services, support, and education. Studies have also shown that higher levels of trust between residents are associated with lower mortality rates. Providing opportunities for social connection was explored by all artists in this project. 

Jimenez utilized this opportunity to challenge herself to find a different approach to her artistic work and increase socialization with elders: “I realized that, in much of the documentary and journalism work I do, the goal is to explore and channel the story of individuals, or of a community, but the process itself doesn’t necessarily connect people to one another. People still tell their stories, in a sense, in isolation. And it is the publication, or sharing of the stories that then connect people to one another through empathy or a shared understanding.” Jimenez concentrated her approach on identifying the needs of the participants through asking and listening, building trust by being responsive to those needs, and asking permission for what to create, how to create it, and how to share what had been created.  She worked to connect people through sharing stories while completing a canvas mural and then utilizing the mural as a photo backdrop for photographs.  

Canvas mural backdrop created as part of Angela Jimenez's project. Photo: Angela Jimenez
Canvas mural backdrop created as part of Angela Jimenez’s project. Photo: Angela Jimenez

The project helped to create connections through art that challenged the structures of policy, art, and community. Jimenez pushed against the idea that is it normal for aging populations to be isolated, forgotten, or on the margins, instead with elders “as people with active minds, rich personal histories, and something to contribute to society counters the dominant negative narrative that casts elders aside in our society.”  Changing her artistic approach and focusing on social connections helped Jimenez see how the two connect, “Storytelling matters. Beyond concrete ideas about policy issues, really listening to an elders story, and to as much about their life as they want to tell you, is incredibly connecting and healing. Some are dealing with loss, pain, trauma and sometimes just nostalgia and memories. I think sometimes with elders we are looking at isolation causing some of the same harm as solitary confinement. Everyone needs to feel seen and valued. I think art is a wonderful way to do this.” She hopes her project, images, and stories help others to connect and share their artistic talents with aging communities.

The power of storytelling to build connections was also shared across projects. Kubat’s project increased participation across multiple groups (whether groups were formed by shared religion, background, or choice in personal relationships).  As Kubat stated, “The people who participated cross pollinated – meaning the boundaries of established cliques softened.” People who did not typically engage with one another were given an opportunity to share stories with one another while creating scrapbooks. Stories were shared that surprised one another and increased understanding in fellow community members, whether it was learning of a resident that had experienced prison, or that a resident was an Olympian. Kubat shared, “The project allowed people to get know each other more, therefore help one another, scrape ice off of the curb, walk each other to the door or ask ‘have you eaten?’” Residents connected through art, learned more about one another, and increased their care for one another and the community. They began to see themselves and one another in new ways.  

As residents struggled at the beginning of the process to participate, Kubat shared examples and encouragement and participation increased. She contemplated, “Many of the participants did not see themselves as artists.” The project completed with participants gaining confidence in their art and one another as community members. They were changing their community one conversation, photo, and story at at time. Kubat simultaneously fostered new policies among community members for internal everyday interactions while struggling to manage the different levels of intimacy shared through the process and wondering how to share the experience, stories, and information with those managing the building and creating policies that impacted the residents.   

The Kairos team fostered environments of dance and storytelling that challenged dominant narratives on aging. The team summarized this work stating, “Our primary reframe is to give intergenerational groups experiences of healthy, active, creative participation in life that includes elders at the center as revered sources of artistic, emotional, social and other cultural value.” In addition to elders of varying physical and cognitive abilities participating in their project, inclusion of family, friends, caregivers, professional staff, volunteers, and community members are supported in connecting with one another and increasing their agency in this artistic, health, emotional and social work.  

Hoffman discussed the possibilities for collaboration with artists towards policy change and development. She pointed to the Kairos team’s ability to create space for someone to be courageous, to jump into a dance, move their body in new ways, and see themselves as a valued center of community. Hoffman noted that Kairos built collective comfort through dance as people became more familiar with the group, themselves, and the Kairos team. When this space to be comfortable and to be courageous is built, could a policy-related topic be introduced to the community? Hoffman asks, “How do we talk about issues that are important to them?  How do we connect people to be a part of the bigger change? People don’t often think about themselves as experts, they are experts at their own needs.” There is self agency around the dinner table and community agency on the dance floor. Collaborations between policy, community, and arts agencies can provide opportunities for individuals to contribute to policy change and development.  

Policy Change is Dynamic

The Artists & Aging pilot project brought together artists, community members, and leaders of policy and arts organizations to explore connections between one another, art, policy, and aging. When we foster partnerships such as these and develop spaces for connection, we are “better positioned to influence policies that support health, particularly when there is socioeconomic and demographic diversity within social networks,” Wilder Research notes. From the seed of this pilot partnership, models of engagement emerged for Citizens League to continue with its policy work, with key issues around access, visibility and social connectedness brought to the fore.

Former President Barack Obama points to power of people stating, “It works only because of the people in it. As cool as the hardware is…ultimately it comes down to remarkable people…Well, the same is true for our democracy. Our democracy is not the buildings, not the monuments. It’s you being willing to work to make things better and being willing to listen to each other and argue with each other and come together and knock on doors and make phone calls and treat people with respect.”  

In this pilot project, people working together across sectors was central to contributing to change in policies and communities. In this sense, policy is not static, or the purview of a single institution. It’s artists willing to try a different approach to their art because it’s aligned with the community’s goals.  It’s organizational leaders willing to partner with artists to provide resources and support in implementing new ways to address old challenges.  It’s community’s willingness to open their doors to strangers and try new ways of being together. It’s politicians willingness to try creative methods and partnerships.  It’s all of us working together to build the coalition of policy creators, informers, and participants to increase and reflect community impact.

Above: Residents paint a canvas mural backdrop as part of Angela Jimenez’s project. Photo: Angela Jimenez

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