#42 Creative Caregiving


In this final post from DC, I wanted to tell you all about my meeting with the National Centre for Creative Aging (NCCA).

I spent a bit of time with Gay Hannah and Greg Finch, two inspiring individuals from this organisation which looks at the synergy between creative expression and healthy aging.

Two initiatives that I loved hearing about were the FREE online artist training programme (you should all do this if you are interested or do work with seniors – 12 hours or so, with a lot of useful learning and reflection time) and the Creative Caregiving guide.

The NCCA Creative Caregiving Guide© is another FREE thing, but this time it’s aimed at carers of adults who live with Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a lively online resource, with videos of artists working with elders, and the chance to select and use caregiving exercises that – as the site says – ‘help you and your care partner to flourish in the art of daily caregiving.’ It’s beautiful, and includes examples of exercises from Alzheimer’s Poetry Project, Elders Share the Arts and other great organisations I’ve met during this trip.

Also, I wanted to say that we also adored being in DC! The Mall, the monuments (MLK, below, was astonishing and bold), the museums, and some of the best food we’ve had. (Lupe Verde, and DC Noodles, if you’re interested!)
Over and out.




#41 – Beautiful prints, a lovely day at Iona

When I see something beautiful, I want the world to slow down to allow enough time to appreciate it. My first Tuesday in Washington DC, I visited Iona Senior Services. Lila Oliver Asher’s prints hung in the gallery – which winds itself through the entire downstairs floor – and really took my breath away. The decisive lines, the clarity of the forms, the playful figures.

It was a thrill to have lunch with Lila, age 94, and hear about her creative life including her time as a portrait artist for the USO, drawing soldiers for their families. Also joining us was pioneering silk artist Diane Tuckman and painter Cathy Abramson. We had a great time, and I had a great bean burger and fries.

I really was inspired by being with artists and printmakers with long careers, producing new work, just offering a little reminder about how creativity is a brilliant thing for everyone, at all times, and there’s never enough time to make all the work we’d all like to, and how opportunities can open up regardless of your age.

My time at Iona Senior Services was organised by Patricia Dubroof, who curates the gallery and supports professional artists (all aged 60+) with such joy and passion for her work.

Patricia, the kindest most enthusiastic soul I’ve met so far, runs three artist-in-residence schemes each year, and has in the past brought in poets to respond to the artwork on offer. She has a keen eye for talent, and has boosted the careers of many artists. Wonderful stuff!

Above: At Cathy Abramson’s exhibition, some of Lila’s prints, all the artists together with Patricia (also an artist!)



#40 A small aside about Diana Athill


I’ve read a lot on this trip. New York and DC novels, poetry collections from the poets I’ve met, and pieces about aging and creativity.

Diana Athill’s Alive, Alive Oh! is a great memoir about the memories that remain as the years progress. Athill is in her 90s, and this book tells of her move to a retirement home and letting go of her many possessions.

There’s a lovely section about a group of women, with an average age of 95, planting rosebushes in the grounds of the home. It’s raining. They worry that if they bend too far, they won’t be able to rise again. But they survey the soil, and start to dig with vigour. “The good thing about being physically incapable of doing almost anything, is that if you manage to do even a little something, you feel good.” They, surprising themselves, plant all the trees.

Another nice quote that has stayed in my head is this one:

[The philosopher Montaigne] considered it a good thing to spend a short time every day thinking about death, thus getting used to its inevitability and coming to understand that something inevitable can’t be too bad…it struck me as a sensible idea.”

Thanks to Emily for the gift of this book 🙂

#39 There are a million ways to do this work

IMG_3570PIZZA. I’ve eaten so much pizza during this trip.

I will say that a freshly cooked pizza always adds a little excitement to meetings.

I met with three brilliant people in New Rochelle, New York one lunchtime to eat, yup, a margherita pizza and chat through the work of Lifetime Arts. Ed Friedman and Maura O’Malley set up the organisation to encourage people to think about ageing as a time for creativity and positive growth.

Lifetime Arts runs arts programmes for older independent adults. Promoting active, in-depth learning for seniors, as opposed to routine, passive entertainment, is their vision.

Ed says there are a million right ways for artists to work with older people. But there are core principles to adhere too: keeping a sense of humour, and always assuming ability.

We talked about Lifetime Arts’ online roster of 150 teaching artists. Each artist has to submit a profile, a resume and a sample curriculum for an instructional series of classes aimed at older adults. Lifetime Arts then works with applicants to ensure they meet the high standards required. The result is a nationwide searchable database of professional artists qualified to work with elders. It’s a great idea.

Hmm, I’m not aware of anything similar in the UK. Does anyone know if such a database exists? Or, should we think about creating one?

#38 Balancing creativity & teaching

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The hot topic for me continues to be how to balance the time and energy needed for to develop my creative projects and the desire to teach and facilitate.

I want to refer to the Joan Mitchell Foundation again, as they were one of the organisations that felt passionately about this too.

And also Asylum Arts, also based in NYC, which runs artist retreats for Jewish creatives. The extraordinary, energetic brilliant Rebecca Guber runs the organisation, and aims to bring together people and ideas for good conversation, skills development and potential creative collaboration.

JMF really see the importance of giving space for the creative work of an artist. Even if the training programmes they offer can’t provide studio space or resources, they do keep on valuing the artist’s creativity.

The course director, Saul Chernick, will use this idea as a theme for next year’s programme.  How are teaching artists bringing art-making values into the classroom? How to decrease the gap between what happens in the studio or desk, and the classroom or community setting?

One way is for the teaching artists to talk about their own work during sessions they lead, bring their own work in, share their own challenges.

Another mechanism is to ensure they are supported by other artists, who they can discuss their creative work alongside.

For Asylum Arts, the artists on retreats with may be teachers, or not, but they all have an opportunity to shares a challenge they’re having and receive feedback from the group.

Regardless of artform, experience and whether they work in the studio, at their desks or in the community, the sessions must make them feel valued as artists amongst peers. As Rebecca says, “it lifts them up.”

Two fine solutions, I think.

#37 Learning from writers in education – part 2: rigour

A second significant meeting I had in New York was with Travis Laughlin and Saul Chernick at the Joan Mitchell Foundation.

This organisation is the legacy of the painter Joan Mitchell, artist, known for her generosity to younger artists. JMF has artistic skills programs, gives grants and has programmes to support senior artists and those who may be in need of financial aid (for example artists affected by disasters such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina).

Arts organisations and funders should recognise that teaching is essential for most artists, to make money and expand their skills, said Travis. To support a visual artist to teach well impacts on their entire career.

The JMF professional development program for teaching artists trains 40 artists as educators through 2-year apprenticeships. It’s a mix of mentoring, hands-on experiences, reflection and developing curriculum-based lesson plans.

We had a rich conversation about how the model might be applied to writers working and teaching older people. Mentoring for the writers-in-training would be vital to offer support and feedback.

Mentors might need training too, suggested Saul. There are many artists I can think of in the UK who do wonderful work in the field of creative ageing, but would they be keen to mentor others? What kind of training would allow the new writers to find their own individual styles of work, rather than (only) following a set model?

What I most admired about this organisation is how seriously they took artist support and good teaching. This kind of rigour and dedication to always wanting high quality experiences for participants is excellent.

Travis was kind enough to give me a wonderful book on teaching.

Over the next few days, I read To Teach by William Ayres, which is about the art of teaching and how to be a compassionate educator. From how to layout classrooms to let creativity flow, to always ensuring there are opportunities for students to discover and be surprised, I feel this title will be by my side as I develop my literary projects with elders.

#36 Learning from writers in education – part 1: slowness

IMG_3703In New York, I met with Community-Word Project which inspires children in underserved communities to read, interpret and respond to their world through artist in residence programmes. Two teaching artists*–and always one writer-work alongside a classroom teacher for 15-30 weeks.

I met with Patti Chilsen (above!) and Megan Morrison on a stormy New York day. We sat with hot tea in a cosy cafe near Wall Street and talked about the best ways to support artists to work with others.

Community-Word Project’s 8-month Teaching Artist Training & Internship Program (TATIP) prepares artists to genuinely collaborate with teachers, to develop projects linked to the curriculum and pepper the experience with loads of creative ideas.

For this program, artists shadow more experienced peers, build skills slowly and develop expertise.

As part of the training, each artist is invited to undertake much personal reflection on their creativity. There’s lesson planning, trial sessions, classroom management, mentoring and also an element on learning types of pedagogy and learning styles.

A few times Patti used the word ‘slow’ to describe her approach. Rather than speed through sessions and then throw the artist into the classroom, TATIP allows plenty of time to develop skills and learn well.

It’s slow, like the Carl Honoré, concept. Slow, like doing things at just the right speed. Slow, not always a million miles an hour.

* ‘Teaching artist’ is definitely a phrase used a great deal in the US. I don’t hear it as much in the UK but it simply describes artist educators, or community artists who teach their art form in schools, and community settings.

#34 Poetry & dance, rhyme & rhythm

I’ve been dancing all week. On Friday in NYC I pirouetted at a Dance for Parkinson’s* class for those living with the disease, and in DC on Thursday I tapped my toes at a dance and music session for seniors run by Arts for the Aging.**

There’s so much to learn from the way dance is taught to older people.

In the DfP sessions, the dance teacher narrated a story through movement. We were fighting through storms, hiding behind our hands from the elements, then being swept away with our umbrellas. Using images and narrative made it easier for participants to visualise and understand the movement instructions.

During the AFTA class, the two facilitators shared their love of dance and music. Miles played blues on his guitar, Nancy taught some movements. During a song, the elders waved a scarf expressively. At the end, they threw them into the middle of the circle. As the scarf lifted and landed, each person was asked, What does the scarf colour remind you of? The answers were gorgeous. Raindrops, God, love, the earth, baby bonnets.

I was prompted to join these sessions following conversations with Gary Glazner of Alzheimer’s Poetry Project. Gary uses music and gestures in his live poetry sessions, and the addition of these elements adds beauty, energy and emphasis.

In my open creative writing sessions, I include body stretching and pummelling. In activities for older people, maybe I’ll borrow this idea. And add a twist, or a click, some knee-tapping rhythms, too…


* Dance for Parkinson’s is a wonderful organisation which began in Brooklyn, and has as its heart that dancers are movement experts. Their body awareness and knowledge of balance, sequencing and rhythm is useful to those living with Parkinson’s disease.

** Another brilliant org. AFTA, offers innovative, immersive arts experiences to older people. Based in DC, they place artists in day care, nursing homes, assisted living and community spaces to deliver totally stimulating, lively sessions for vulnerable elders.

#33 Yoga and other people’s happiness

In New York’s East Village, I joined the daily yoga sessions at the quite marvellous Yoga to the People. Each class closed with a quote. Today’s was by George Eliot. “What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?”

It chimed with me and helped me remember the real aims of my research.

There are huge rewards for writers developing work with communities. Excitement that may not be found on the page, stage or online. Working creatively with elders, for me, feels like a pretty good way to contribute to other people’s wellbeing, to help make things happier, or just easier, for others in some small way.

Photograph taken at an Alzheimer’s Poetry Project Memory Arts Cafe event, Brooklyn.