Possibilities: Creative Aging through the Arts

Dancing the garba – great for physical and mental fitness

It’s India Independence Day, 2017,  and at the celebration being held at Queens Borough Hall in Queens, NY, the young announcer invites the next act to come up on stage. Ten women from India Home file in and start dancing, their bright white, orange and red saris billowing, their feet making dexterous patterns to the insistently upbeat music. The scene is remarkable not for the fact that there are Indian dancers in Queens, but because the women swaying on stage are all between 65 and 85 years old.

It is no coincidence that these women are so fit and vigorous. They have been dancing for years and are living proof of a growing  body of research that links participatory arts activities to an increase in the health, well being, and quality of life in aging adults. One  study  of adults aged 60 and over suggested “health benefits of dance for older adults such as improved cognition and attention, posture and balance, and hand/motor skills in comparison to the control group. ” And it’s not just dance. Createequity, a think tank and online publication “investigating the most important issues in the arts”  has analyzed extensive research that shows that taking part in arts related activity benefits older adults in myriad ways.

  • Singing improves mental health and subjective wellbeing (i.e., perceived quality of life)
  • Playing a musical instrument has myriad positive effects, including dementia risk reduction
  • Visual arts practice generates increases in social engagement, psychological health and self-esteem

In 2006, the National Endowment for the Arts published the results of a  landmark multisite (Washington DC metro area, Brooklyn and San Francisco) national study undertaken with the aim of “measuring the impact of professionally conducted community based cultural programs on the general health, mental health, and social activities of older persons, age 65 and older.”  Referred to as the Creativity and Aging Study, it was the first effort in this area to use an experimental design and a control group to study 300 participants in the 65-103 age range.

The results were striking. The 150 older adults who were involved in weekly participatory art programs reported: (A) better health, fewer doctor visits, and less medication usage; (B) more positive responses on the mental health measures; (C) more involvement in overall activities. The results pointed to the powerful positive effects of community-based programs run by professional artists, now known as Creative Aging Programs.

What in the world is Creative Aging? 

Lifetime Arts, a nonprofit organization is very clear on what Creative Aging is not: “it’s not about making macaroni necklaces.” Creative Aging then according to Lifetime Arts is ” the practice of engaging older adults  in participatory, professionally run arts programs with a focus on social engagement and skills mastery.” These are programs based in the belief that individuals do not stop growing or learning at any age. They are interventions, and disruptions that help older adults free themselves from traditional and limiting preconceptions about aging and decline and help them discover new possibilities, and new skills.

Learning New Ways of Creative Expression

Drawing with pastels in a class made possible by a grant from Lifetime Arts.

At our Sunnyside Center, Creative Aging classes include photography and drawing workshops, recreational dance, as well as poetry and memoir classes.

At India Home drawing classes are taught by professional artists

Starting in November, a 9-week long drawing workshop,  run by Ebenezer Singh, a professional artist and funded through a grant from Lifetime Arts, is introducing elders to advanced drawing using a wide range of materials such as India Ink, carbon pencil, watercolors. The classes also include conversations about historical and contemporary art, and introduces famous Indian artists, thus adding cultural sensitivity to the mix. While some of the participants were unsure of their artistic skills in the beginning, their confidence grows day by day. “I didn’t know I could draw like this,” Shobana Shah said in a recent class. “I’m enjoying learning this very much.”

In a paper published in the journal Arts and Health in 2012, lead researcher Nikky Greer documented improvements in both mental health and social wellbeing, “through increased social engagement, self-awareness, empowerment, and a sense of calm and relaxation.”

Our Sunnyside participants are so enthusiastic about the classes, they take photos of their work with their cell phones, so they can go home and practice before the next week rolls around.

Writing Workshops

Elders from India Home’s Desi Senior read from their memoirs

Meanwhile, our Desi Senior Center, India Home’s largest center in Jamaica, Queens, offers writing workshops to older Muslim men and women from Bangladesh thanks to a grant from Poets and Writers.

In Beyond Nostalgia: Aging and Life Story Writing, author Ruth E Ray explains why writing and sharing life stories in groups is valuable from a developmental perspective for older adults. Writing and sharing life stories allows them to not only make public the methods by which they make meaning of their own lives, but also “seeing and hearing others” helps them to understand that they are not alone in that meaning-making process.

At our Desi Senior Center, the ten week memoir course meets for an hour and a half every week, and families and friends are invited to attend the final reading. One recent Thursday, participants were encouraged by their instructor, Sabbin Akhter, a published writer herself, to read aloud from short memoir pieces that the elders had written to illustrate commonly used proverbs in Bangladesh. The readings were lively, full of dialogue and imagery. Lyrical descriptions of trees, cows, fields and the seasons evoked the villages from which the elders had migrated.  As each writer in the circle finished reading their piece, the others applauded, shouting encouragement. “You get the first and second prize,” one grandmother told another, clapping her hands in delight. The sense of camaraderie and friendliness between the budding writers is palpable.

Our Approach to Creative Aging is Evolving

India Home is committed to intentionally engaging Creative Aging as a targeted program and our approach continues to evolve. Our aim, as it is with most of our programming, is to focus on creative activities that are culturally appropriate. While it is sometimes challenging to find artists who speak South Asian languages or can offer culturally appropriate art activities, we persist because culturally relevant programming is the most effective way to reach the seniors in our communities.

Still, watching our older adults laugh over a wonderful memory in their notebook, or admire a still life of colorful fruit that they created in an afternoon, or dance on a stage at the Rubin Museum, are reasons enough for us to constantly innovate and continue to offer these programs.



In a collaboration with MoMA, our seniors learn about the art of photography

The Museum of Modern Art in New York City is the largest and most influential museum of modern art in the world. As part of a creative aging initiative, our seniors got to engage with the art of photography in the MoMA.  The program featured a guided tour of exhibits, and two photography classes at our center conducted by Jano Cortijo, an artist-educator from the museum.

“Looking” at photos at MoMA:

Jano Cortijo, an artist educator from the MoMA asks our what they notice in Samuel Fasso’s self-portraits

Our seniors study Robert Rauschenberg’s photographs at the MoMA

Henri Carter-Bresson, considered one of the world’s greatest photographers, said, “In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject.” Our seniors were encouraged to look for the smallest thing in a photo and asked to wonder why it had been included and what effect it had on the photograph. We looked at light falling through a sheet, the lines on a tower, various graphic shapes in Robert Rauschenberg’s work — with Cortijo asking guiding questions that made our seniors understand the many choices that go into making a photograph. We talked about Samuel Fasso’s self-portraits which have him taking on roles of his heroes like Nelson Mandela and Angela Davis, and his attempt to take on a larger political and activist role as an artist.

Seniors workshop their own photographs

Photography class, homework and all: 

Taking photos outdoors and in the street

A lesson about backgrounds

After looking at photos by famous artists, our seniors got a lesson in taking better photographs using a smartphone. They learned about backgrounds, about lighting, angles, position of the photographer, focus on the subject and rudimentary editing. They also learned about the difference in portrait photography versus landscapes, tricks to modulate the brightness in iPhones and so on.

Cortijo, the artist-educator, also assigned our seniors “homework.” They were asked to take photos at home using their new found skills. When their homework assignments were displayed on the TV,  the class enthusiastically critiqued the results – generously pointing out what worked in the photos  as well as the flaws.

Our seniors listened avidly and responded with enthusiasm to this foray into photography as art. While it is true that modern technology has made taking a photograph easy, it was fascinating for seniors to see it as an art form, one that required more than just a point and click. We could see that the lessons had made a difference–many of the photos taken after the class showed that they were paying attention and practicing their skills!

Our seniors loved the tight focus on the little boy, the symmetry of the trees, the repetition  of ochre color in this photograph. (c) Jayesh Patel.

Learning and loving computers at 60+


India Home’s seniors are learning computer skills, many for the first time

India Home’s Desi Senior Center is now offering computer classes to senior men and women who want to learn to handle technology. Mr. Palash Piplu, a volunteer, teaches the class on Thursdays. For now, Palash is familiarizing our seniors, many of whom  have never touched a computer, with basic computer skills, such as how to open a file and save it, or how to browse the internet.

A. Mahbubul Latif is happy that he is learning something new and wants to learn all about the computer. “I can do my own work, take care of my own things,” he said.

India Home started these classes because there is a strong desire among our seniors to get in touch with the world.  As Latif said,  “Everything is on computers now…but when I ask at home to teach me computers, nobody helps me.”

Learning the unfamiliar technology don’t come not easy for these elders, but they persist. They are determined to learn the intricacies of computer use,  even though, as Latif acknowledged, “We didn’t practice computers in our time.”

It has been heartening to see how the women at the center have been at the forefront of the classes, encouraging each other to participate.

Rabeya Khanom is 67 years old but wants to be always learning. At the beginning of the class, she said, “It was difficult to catch up,” and wished there was a “shortcut.” But she says she’s  “learning this from my own interest. It is better to be learning something than sitting at home doing nothing,” she said. She also doesn’t want to be left behind.  “Everybody has computer in our home, internet too. I want to use email and the internet,” she said.

While many of the seniors have never used a computer, several others have worked and retired in the US.  They are taking to classes to update their skills. Farida Talukdar worked for 23 years in the Social Services department in New York City and says she has a basic knowledge of computers. But now, she said, she “was getting interested in Word, Excel and the Internet. ” With the instructor Palash’s teaching, these programs, were “becoming much easier now,” she said.

It is a well known fact that students learn better with support from their families. Our adult learners are being encouraged by their children. For Ms. Khanum, there’s an additional incentive to master computers: “My daughter said if I learn computers, she will buy a computer for me,” she said, smiling from ear to ear.

Funding for the 14 unit computer lab was generously provided by Department for the Aging and Commissioner Dr. Donna Corrado.

(With additional reporting from Shah Afroditi Panna)


Trip to Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum!

On August 18th, members from our Desi Senior Center took a trip to Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in midtown Manhattan. Departing from the Jamaica Muslim Center at 11 a.m, the two buses made it to the museum at 12:30pm. During the trip, our seniors had lots of fun singing songs and telling jokes.


At the museum, they were thrilled by the wax statues of famous people. Wax statues at the museum are difficult and expensive to make, our members learned. They were especially happy to see Bill and Hillary Clinton.


After hanging out on 42nd Street and seeing all the tourists and bright lights of the theater district, we took them to Brooklyn to show them around this borough. They went to downtown Brooklyn – and were impressed by its skyline- and Prospect Park.


We love taking our seniors around the city and state so they get exposed to American life and culture. Often, our seniors cannot go on their own. These trips are very important for our seniors to see different places and learn more about the United States.

Representing South Asian seniors at the famous Museum of Modern Art


MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, is not only one of the world’s largest museums for modern art, it is also the most influential museum of modern art on the planet.

Now the museum is bringing its power and prestige to a program that will get more older adults to visit the museum, take its classes and learn about art. Called Prime Time, the initiative plans to engage older adults with opportunities to experience art in new ways and is part of a broader attempt to redefine aging.

IMG_0525India Home was part of Prime Time Exchange, a conference that brought together 20+ museums and cultural institutions, 20+ multi-services agencies and aging services organizations, city agencies, community-based arts organizations and teaching artists. India Home’s Lakshman Kalasapudi and Meera Venugopal were on two separate panels with Evelyn Laureano of Neighborhood SHOPP that serves 5000 seniors in the Bronx and Christian Gonzalez-Rivera of Center for an Urban Future, who, among other things, is the author of an important and timely study of immigrants and aging in NYC.

IMG_0524It was an opportunity to make great connections with other museums and art organizations and we hope to see teaching artists from MOMA come out to meet with our older adults. We were happy to share our experience of serving South Asian immigrant seniors with the audience at the Exchange. We hope that more arts institutions in NYC will think about the unique needs and perspectives of immigrant seniors and invite them to contribute to this conversation about art, creativity and aging.