- The Washington Times - Friday, June 1, 2007

With people older than 80 becoming the fastest-growing part of our population, a veritable tsunami of articles, books and films on the subject of aging has burst on the scene. “Do Not Go Gently,” a documentary that looks at successful aging, aired on WHUT-Channel 32 a couple of weeks ago; “Away From Her,” a film starring Julie Christie now playing in area theaters, offers a sensitive, thoughtful look at Alzheimer’s.

Some of the most insightful reactions to making the late-in-life years meaningful have come from artists. The Washington area in particular has become a focal point for using art to bring richness to older lives.

Liz Lerman was teaching groundbreaking dance classes at the Roosevelt for Senior Citizens in 1975; today she has Thomas Dwyer, 73, and Martha Wittman, 72, as longtime, pivotal members of her nationally renowned Liz Lerman Dance Exchange. Mr. Dwyer is dancing with the company this weekend at American University’s Harold and Sylvia Greenberg Theatre in Northwest.

Lolo Sarnoff, at 91 a vibrant role model herself, founded Arts for the Aging (AFTA) here in 1988. At first, Mrs. Sarnoff, both philanthropist and sculptor, went to senior centers and volunteered to teach art classes. Word spread, other centers asked her to come, professional artists were hired as teachers, and soon AFTA was servicing 10 centers. Now it sends out 17 artists to 45 centers, with many more clamoring to be included.

Underlining the need to provide more than warehousing for seniors, Dr. Gene Cohen of George Washington University has done pioneering work in measuring the healthful mind-body effect of arts programs in senior centers and nursing homes.

The National Center for Creative Aging, a national membership organization, is about to relocate here next to Dr. Cohen’s offices at Iona House in Northwest Washington. The synergy of these two groups, one in practice and training, the other in research, will be a powerful voice.

Dr. Cohen’s research has shown a beneficial effect on health and function for seniors engaged in intensive, ongoing once-a-week arts programs — less use of medication, fewer doctor visits and a more active lifestyle — results that have important implications for government policies and support.

Everyone involved in these new approaches is impressed with how powerful and lifesaving exposure to the arts can be. Seniors have the opportunity to create, they feel empowered, and they gain a sense of self-worth and pleasure in involvement with the group — all antidotes to withdrawal from life.

For Miss Lerman, there’s always been a connection between the art she makes and working with seniors. When her mother died, she found it natural to have older people in a dance about her mother’s life, which led her to look for them by teaching at the Roosevelt senior center. Older people have been vital to her dance ever since. Not only does art nurture these dancers; they nurture the art.

Interactions between mother and daughter, grandfather and grandson look believable on her stage. In her recent “Ferocious Beauty: Genome,” Mr. Dwyer, pulling our leg, looked suitably decrepit as dire warnings about old age were predicted; then he confounded the stereotype by suddenly dropping to the floor and polishing off a dazzling round of pushups.

From Miss Lerman incorporating older dancers in professional-level work to professional artists bringing so much to AFTA’s classes to Dr. Cohen’s illuminating research, everyone is moved by how powerful the arts can be in nurturing the later years.

Some of the effect was captured by the mother-daughter team of Eileen Illig and Melissa Godoy, executive producer and director-producer respectively of “Do Not Go Gently.”

“The most important discovery in the creation of our documentary was how important imagination is to being human,” Mrs. Godoy says. “In the end, when all else fails, what remains is the common bond we have with our imagination. I find that very spiritual.”

AFTA teacher John Sausser is a musician, drummer and pied piper, blowing in on a gust of enthusiasm that seniors find pretty irresistible. “It’s really about having fun and placing value on human life,” he says, summing up the worldview he brings with him.

“I get people to dance and overcome inhibitions. Basically what I do is not what they expect.

“Sometimes I bring in fairly exotic instruments: Tibetan bells, drums from Africa. Some of the people I work with have a background of gospel in their churches. They’ve participated in that all their lives and understand about reaching beyond themselves through the music.”

For Nancy Havlik, joining AFTA “started out as a practical decision because I needed to make money to do my own artistic work,” but the experience proved more than that. “I’ve met wonderful people, seniors who’ve given a lot back to me,” she says.

Julia Burger, poet and AFTA teacher, has seen the power of poetry in the groups with which she works. “Poetry has a way of helping people learn about one another; sharing themselves [in a way] they might not do in a regular conversation. It nurtures them and gives them a sense of belonging.”

A while back, Miss Burger decided to do a version of haiku (short three-line poems) with the seniors.

“I was excited because haiku is short but also quite profound and very much about nature, which my people can relate to,” she says.

Her group made a portfolio of haiku and brush-stroke paintings to record their achievement. Here are two from that study:

Old woman

Wiser and stronger.

Lonely, yet belonging.

Lavora President

A mountain — a life.

Harsh climb.”

Looking back now.

— Evelyn Foley

Imagination is concerned with the personal, the romantic and the ephem-eral. Lest anyone doubt that romance can be part of the later years, here’s what an octogenarian in one of Miss Burger’s classes penned to the sweetheart he had not seen in 40 years:

My dearest darling,

Here is a love letter that I should have written you a long time ago. For it is a long letter of love’s lost. For it is a lilting, lingering, lost love. For each Valentine’s Day always brings a tear for the love that became lost, lingering and lilting in the long lost recesses of my soul. I love you.

Robert

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