When you hear the words, “arts education,” what population comes to your mind? For many people, it is K-12 students, and until a few months ago, that was my initial thought too. In fact, if you do a Google search on “arts education,” the top results are focused on arts education centered around K-12 students. But what if I told you that arts education is more than K-12 students? It encompasses us all.

Creative aging is arts education that is centered around older adults. A recent study by the National Endowment for the Arts found that older adults who engage in meaningful arts activities have “better health outcomes…higher cognitive functioning, lower rates of cognitive decline, lower rates of hypertension, and lower rates of limited physical function.” The unfortunate reality, however, is that this community in arts education is often overlooked. In its studies, the National Guild for Community Arts Education found that “the majority of community arts education programs available…are for people under the age of 18.” While K-12 arts education is very important, arts education for older adults is of equal importance, especially during this time of COVID.

“A 2018 survey from the AARP Foundation and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine showed that 43 percent of adults age 60 and older reported feeling lonely.” And this was pre-pandemic. The social isolation that COVID has created for all of us, has only increased the number of older adults who are now experiencing loneliness. It has also intensified the feeling for those who were already experiencing it.

As someone who has previously worked within K-12 arts education in the community, I was very intrigued to learn more about the creative aging component. This led to the opportunity to speak with Maura O’Malley, CEO and co-founder of Lifetime Arts, to learn more about creative aging and how it has been impacted by COVID.

Woman with short blond curly hair, wearing earrings and a yellow blouse.
Maura O'Malley, CEO and co-founder of Lifetime Arts. Photo by Jeremy Amar

Ashley: What is your definition of creative aging? When you refer to older adults, where does that age range begin?

Maura: First, the age range we say is 55 and better. And that's a huge population of potentially 50 years. We have had students who are 105 years old in our programs. It's about community-based learning. Creative aging, the way that we [Lifetime Arts] define it, is that it's arts education for older adults. It is skills based, it is sequential, scaffolded learning over time, and it is participatory. Though the results may be therapeutic, the goal is instructional. And so we are a service organization. We were established to help build the field of creative aging by helping organizations who serve older adults to develop, implement, and sustain arts education programs.

Ashley: Why did you decide to pursue creative aging?

Maura: My background is in arts education. I worked for a variety of arts education organizations, including Young Audiences and the public-school systems. My interest in creative aging began as I became a caregiver for two close relatives. I began to see as a caregiver that there was a lot of nothing happening for people that I loved, and I knew that there had to be a connection between arts, learning, and health. So I began to learn about what was the very early stages of creative aging. My colleague and I became part of this committee around creative aging. We began to realize, that there was no infrastructure for this field. There were no resources. There were no best practices to find. There was no training for teaching artists, and so we worked with this committee to establish a regranting program to begin programs so that people could understand that this was beyond passive entertainment; that older adults were active, engaged, and living longer, healthier lives.

Ashley: That’s great that you saw that need and took the initiative to fill the void. Could you talk a little more specifically about why you and Lifetime Arts advocate for this work and the importance you find within it?

Maura: We advocate for programs that involve the learning of something new, or in more depth, a supportive environment, and incorporating intentional social engagement. Whether they're 55 or 95, they're coming together as learners, and that creates community and helps to rebuild the social connections that older adults naturally lose as we age. You retire from work; you lose your spouse…There are a series of natural losses that take place as you get older, and that's why rebuilding those connections through programs that are in the community are important. We've built this organization to help other organizations and the systems that support them to incorporate this kind of work. We learned early on that people consider older adults as other, when, in reality, we're all aging every day. You're going to get old. So how we do it, how we feel about it, what resources we have, and what we're included and invested in, is important. There’s this quote that says, “Ageism is a prejudice against our future selves.” And so the work is important in terms of figuring out how you want to grow older.

Four women in large, full blue ruffled skirts, holding out the skirts with their hands, all wearing white blouses, and a man wearing a dark vest and white hat stand in a room.
Participants in the Bomba Dance Workshop. Photo by Casita Maria

Ashley: You mentioned that “people consider older adults as other,” and research shows that many organizations only provide arts education for the K-12 population. How do you advocate to the community that creative aging is an important component of arts education? Have you ever encountered resistance on this?

Maura: No, not resistance. In fact, there's been a real embracing of this work. There's a lot of research around the value of arts engagement. The National Institute for Health, the NEA, and several others are doing research around benefits of arts engagement, specifically for older adults. It is around the issues of active living, engaged learning, and social engagement. And that combats some of the natural things that occur during aging. The economic impact on arts and cultural organizations who embrace creative aging programs is significant. Older adults statistically have more money, more time, and more interest in learning than a lot of other groups. Creative aging expands an organization’s audience and brings in new funding streams. Once you're working with them, you can bring in money that deals with health improvement, disease prevention, and community development. For teaching artists, it develops a new toolkit. They find this work to be very engaging. Working with older adults is in many ways gratifying because they come with a lifetime of experience. It's much more of a give and take than top-down instruction. For senior service organizations and public libraries, it advances their mission by providing meaningful, impactful work. And we work with all those different entities to help them to incorporate this work.

Ashley: Could you elaborate about what your collaboration with these different entities looks like?

Maura: We generally work at the institution or system level so that our partners, like state arts agencies, state libraries, national organizations, and regional entities, have a network of organizations. We work within their infrastructure and their delivery structure. For instance, state libraries have mechanisms for delivering professional development so we don’t need to reinvent that. We need to employ the mechanisms that exist. Our goals are to influence the top and the bottom. At the local level, we help programs demonstrate what the work [of creative aging] looks like. When we first started, people would say, “Oh arts and aging, you mean arts and crafts.” No, that's not what we mean. There's a lot of undoing to do. We actually had to create a glossary of terms for non-arts programmers to understand that within visual and performing arts, there are many different genres, like photography, printmaking, theatre, and choral music. We also train them to ask questions to find out what's happening in their community. At the upper level, it's more advocacy and coaching around budget alignment and partnership development. We're also doing some state agency work with state libraries, state arts councils, and the Veterans Administration.

Ashley: One of the things arts advocates frequently discuss is knowing what makes your program relevant to those outside of your organization. I'd love to hear about the message you employ to advocate to funders the relevancy of creative aging.

Maura: Our funders are varied, which is interesting. We have funding from the federal government, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, state artists agencies, and private foundations that are health focused. In terms of how we pitch our work, it depends on what the funding source is funding. Each funder is different so it influences the case we make. For example, in terms of health funders, we discuss how creative aging programming is built around social engagement so it builds new connections and reduces social isolation. This active, engaged learning actually combats social isolation and improves the quality of life. We also have had many external evaluations that measure these things. We measure how people feel before and after participating in a workshop session. We have also measured the impact of our training on professional practice. So how we talk about the work is dependent on who we are asking money from. But we have a lot of repeat funders. People keep coming back.

A photo collage of 24 singers of various ages singing on Zoom
Intergenerational performers sing together on Zoom in the collaborative project, “Peace 4 the Ages.” Photo by: Michael Matthew Ferrell

Ashley: Speaking of creative aging combating social isolation, I’d imagine many of your participants fall under the higher risk category. How has COVID impacted how you connect and engage with your patrons and partner organizations?

Maura: It’s impacted everything. All of our training and all the programs that we're supporting are online or remote so we have trained hundreds of teaching artists and organizations on how to translate their programs from in-person to online.

Ashley: What has the response been to the shift?

Maura: Everybody has been suffering from social isolation, but especially older adults who are already socially isolated so these programs have been amazing and super popular in many organizations. The virtual programs have more people signing on that never came to the in-person ones for a lot of reasons. People don't have to leave their house. There's been all kinds of great things happening, like Meals on Wheels delivering art materials to homebound people. We have also been able to offer asynchronous work between online sessions so that we send people videos, resources, information, or articles in-between sessions. The teaching artists have been implementing office hours, sort of one-on-one conversations, with people in their classes.

Ashley: What amazing stories! What have you learned from your experience engaging in creative aging during COVID?

Maura: It has made it very clear that online work is not going away and that it plays a very important role in reaching older adults who are otherwise at a distance from organizations that host in-person work. For instance, rural populations, where the nearest public library is 50 miles away or the nearest museum is 120 miles away. Virtual online programming has resulted in a great expansion of people who can get online. It has also brought attention to the need to provide the kind of training that people need in order to know how to use Zoom and all that kind of stuff. We’re now starting to navigate, how does an organization that can gather in-person do in-person programming? Put virtual programming on a big screen where people are socially distanced in the room! There are all kinds of alternatives that are being developed, very innovative and effective ways. Teaching artists and organizations are calling and checking in on people. It’s made everyone in this work really jump on to a new platform and take advantage of it. A lot of that has happened just to keep people engaged. It's going to stick around because there's a lot of value in it. It's not the same as in-person training, but there are all kinds of advantages and disadvantages to both. But I think virtual work is here to stay and, ideally, we will also get back to in-person work soon.

Ashley: I love that virtual programming has allowed you to reach a greater population and help combat social isolation. When I was first introduced to creative aging back in September, I immediately thought of my grandparents who are higher risk and have stayed in their house during COVID. It really made me want to learn more so I could help them safely get plugged back into a community.

Maura: There are no geographic boundaries for online work. You might have a class of people who are from 10 different states, and they never in a million years would have met except for this online virtual world.

Eight people in a room, some standing and some sitting, in the process of various movements, some with their arms in various positions.
Artists in the Movement and Writing session taught by Teaching Artist, Thern Anderson. Photo by Lindsey Francis

I was so grateful for the opportunity to speak with Maura and inspired to hear the impact she and Lifetime Arts are having on the older adult population. My favorite story that she shared was the story of two older adults in their 80s. They happened to participate in the same choral program, and after spending ten weeks together in the program, they announced their wedding engagement at the culminating event! It’s such a heartwarming and powerful testimonial of how the arts can play a role in creating a community for a population that is often faced with social isolation.

As Maura mentioned, we all age. So how do you want to spend your older adult years? Personally, I want to spend mine in a meaningful community that engages with the arts. To keep providing arts education for older adults, we must be proactive in advocating for its significant place within arts education by using our time and resources to help organizations like Lifetime Arts.

So how can you get involved? One way to actively show your support is to advocate for the increased funding of grants, such as the Older Americans Act. This is a simple act that creates a huge impact of what is financially possible for creative aging programming. There are also many organizations that offer opportunities to get involved no matter what age you are, such as Lifetime Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Americans for the Arts. They offer a wide variety of resources that allow people to get plugged in and stay up to date with what is happening in the creative aging field. You can also reach out in your local community to see what is already happening. Are programs being offered? Get involved as a participant or volunteer. Nothing going on? Gather a group and start your own program. Whatever you do, don’t just sit idly by; invest in your future!

Ashley Pope is a graduate student in the MFA in Theatre in Arts Leadership program at Virginia Tech.