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Arts and aging: From theatre to painting, the arts play a major role in our health as we age

By Janie Nafsinger

Lifestyles Northwest, June 4, 2007

Anna Mary Moses, better known as Grandma Moses, started painting when she was 77. George Burns resurrected his acting career at age 79. Legendary jazz pianist Dave Brubeck, still performing at age 86, will make his 14th appearance at the Monterey Jazz Festival this September.

Human creativity obviously doesn’t dry up with age. Research has even found that as the brain ages, “There’s less fear of failure and of trying new things,” says Bonnie Vorenberg, a nationally recognized pioneer in senior theater who spoke recently at the first-ever Pacific Northwest Arts and Aging Forum at Marylhurst University.

No one is more passionate than Vorenberg about encouraging creativity in older adults. The 56-year-old Portland resident has spent nearly 30 years teaching, directing, writing and speaking in her pursuit of promoting the positive connection between the arts and aging.

Vorenberg cites one study that found older adults who paint, draw, sing, dance or otherwise show their artistic side have fewer doctor’s appointments, take fewer medications and suffer less from depression.

Likewise, society’s elders are the ones who sustain the arts, Vorenberg told her Marylhurst audience. “When a culture lives, thrives or dies, you’re always going to find the arts. The arts are what pass the culture on.”

She’s believed all this for years, and now the rest of the world is catching on, what with new studies on the value of the arts and better attitudes toward the arts-and-aging connection, not to mention the millions of baby boomers who are approaching the so-called “golden years.” It all adds up to “an arts-and-aging explosion,” Vorenberg says.

If only it were that easy. Vorenberg will never forget the chilly reception she received the first time she talked to a parks and recreation department about starting a senior theater program. To her horror, one staffer asked, “Why would you want to do that? They’ll all die of a heart attack!”

Other well-meaning people advised her, “Bonnie, you don’t want to do that–they need to rest.”

Then there’s the attitude that singing, dancing and acting for old people is childish. “Seniors are not children,” Vorenberg says. “ It’s not childish. It’s being childlike; it’s letting your spirit out.”

Undaunted, Vorenberg went on to start the nation’s first senior talent agency and the first directory to senior theater companies in the United States and Canada. Ten years ago, there were 79 senior theaters; now there are 732.

Still, starting an arts program is not a job for the easily discouraged. “Finding money is always a problem,” Vorenberg says, adding, “I’m getting real tired of activity directors not having a budget.”

There’s also good old-fashioned ageism, which ranges from humor that makes fun of old people to the surge in cosmetic surgery. “We are fighting a culture that doesn’t understand aging for some reason,” Vorenberg says.

But she keeps plugging away. “It gives me purpose,” she says. “It gives me motivation.”

She remembers an elderly man who got involved in senior theater and, frankly, was “really bad” in the role he was playing in a show. So the director assigned him to another role. And when the man died, his daughter reported that he died happy “because he always wanted to be onstage.”

Vorenberg also likes to point to her own mother as an example of a creative senior. At age 85, her mother went skydiving. When she turned 86, she went a second time. “She just turned 87,” Vorenberg says, “and she’s going to do it again.”

Arts-and-aging network starts

Plans to form a local arts-and-aging network were unveiled at the Pacific Northwest Arts and Aging Forum held April 28 at Marylhurst University. The network will serve as a regional branch of an umbrella organization called the National Center for Creative Aging, says senior theater expert Bonnie Vorenberg. Its main goal will be to promote more arts for the aging by bringing together people involved in the visual and literary arts, music and theater. “We’re really at just the ground floor,” Vorenberg says.

For more information, call Vorenberg at 503-246-3000 or email bonniev@seniortheatre.com. To learn about Vorenberg’s company, ArtAge Publications, visit www.seniortheatre.com.

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