University Settlement's leadership on Creative Aging

Feb 19, 2020 | Melissa Aase, Executive Director

At the beginning of February, I had the opportunity to speak at the launch event for the NYC Creative Aging Initiative hosted by LiveOn NY, the New York Community Trust, and Lifetime Arts at the Ford Foundation Center for Social Justice.

I was excited to be able to share University Settlement's thinking about how creativity and participation in the arts is a clear solution to the crisis of social isolation for seniors – one of the most critical issues facing New York City, and one which will only deepen without significant planning, investment, and coordination.  

New York needs to become a truly Age Friendly City in order to ride this wave, and Creative Aging is a response that's entirely consonant with settlement houses' traditional focus on building holistic opportunities for community participation. We're thrilled to see it taken up so broadly and with such enthusiasm.  

Through the Creative Center, and with thanks to the trailblazing leadership of its Director Robin Glazer, University Settlement has been a pioneer in the field of Creative Aging for more than a decade; this spring we will host our 10th annual week-long national Creative Aging training symposium, through which we have trained more than 450 artists and eldercare administrators, 100% of whom have gone on to build their own programs to engage seniors in the arts here in New York, across the United States, and around the world.

The cutting edge thinking on creative aging is, in many ways, simply more of what the people who founded our progressive settlement houses more than 135 years ago.

Arts are at the heart of all vibrant communities, and settlement houses have known this from the very beginning.  Most settlement houses were built with performance spaces, art clubs, and intergenerational programming. University Settlement has a theater space that doubles as a dance studio, and triples as a meeting and learning space. 

At the turn of the 20th Century, the Metropolitan Museum of Art brought its very first community exhibit to our space, and literally thousands of Lower East Side neighbors came to view incredible works of art, proving that the huddled masses yearning to breathe free were also yearning for art. 

In the 1920s, Lilli Miller came to our theater space as a six or seven-year-old and found her way into the rest of her life. She is now 99 and has been a practicing artist her whole life --- first in modern dance, then playing the cello, and finally making incredibly beautiful ceramics at a sister settlement house, Greenwich House.  A few years ago, at a solo show she mounted at the age of 96, "Everything I ever loved – dance, music, clay – stemmed from my participation in classes at University Settlement on the Lower East Side.  All these wordless arts that said everything to me."

At University Settlement, we work with 2,000 people over age 60 each year, and we've built a campus with several locations and types of spaces and programming.  There are lots of leadership and volunteer and paid opportunities in all of these spaces. Fun, social, learning and physical exercise opportunities are supported with crucial social services, housing services, financial supports, crisis intervention, home-based care, great nutritional supports at home and in our centers, and mental health care.

We understand the elder population is shifting and we have evolved to meet these changes.  We've built programs for the full range of ages and abilities among elders in our community, from wild dancing under a disco ball or performing on stage, to visual arts classes of all kinds, including at home, with caregivers, or even bedside in the hospital.

Even though the efficacy of this approach is proven, we are challenged in providing these resources in several consistent ways:

  1. Funding the arts, artists, and arts education is challenging everywhere, at all ages.
  2. Human services and social safety spending is segregated, segmented and siloed – and when the money works that way, so goes the work.

At University Settlement, as at settlement houses generally, we work every day to braid together resources, funding streams, "populations," so that when people come to the house, they are simply welcomed as humans, as people, as our neighbors.  Like Lilli, who was never the same after she was welcomed and seen, and who has give the world so much beauty as a result.

Everyone has the capacity to understand the power of being seen, of being included and of belonging.  It is the seed for every other outcome and metric and measurement, for every "return on investment" and transactional widget that we get paid for.  And it is also the seed of our common future. 

We'd like to commend those who have made it a little bit easier to grow "Creative Aging" programs, including:

  • The DCLA and DFTA for working together, and for calling on your colleagues in other agencies to do the same
  • The City Council for championing this work and your local senior centers
  • Senior Center, senior service and health providers of all kinds who work so hard and still welcome this challenge because THEY KNOW
  • Artists, arts organizations and cultural institutions that have opened their doors, and programs and time to work especially with older people
  • And those very special funders who understand and support this work.
  • And, of course, our elders for teaching, sharing, leading and inspiring us. 

Learn more about University Settlement's Creative Aging resources.


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