Taught in the Act

Bingo and knitting might be the first activities you think of when “senior resident community” comes to mind.
And while those are popular hobbies (and for good reason, because bingo is fun), seniors are finding more ways to entertain themselves — sometimes, in the most literal sense of the word.
Arts and culture programs at resident communities are pushing those activities aside in order to allow the residents to participate in programs they have always enjoyed, from art to writing to theater.
Theater programs have taken on key roles in many senior communities in the last few years.
Philly Senior Stage is the brainchild of Robb Hutter, a Toronto native and past artistic director of Temple University’s intergenerational educational theatre program, The Full Circle Theatre.
It started in 2007 as a way of working with seniors through acting classes to find their comfort zone, and then pull them out of it, as Hutter described it.
Since its inception, Hutter and his team of educators and workshoppers have continued to share the program with more than 15 senior centers around the Philly area, bringing the love for performance with them.
One such place is Shannondell at Valley Forge, which was where Philly Senior Stage got its start.
The center had completed a brand-new auditorium in 2005, and Hutter learned that it was being used for hosting musicals and performance, but no one used the stage for theatrical performances by the residents.
He had to change that.
He created an 8-week course, which evolved into developing semiannual shows by the “The Shannondell Actors Studio” where his “kids” strut their stuff through acting and drama classes.
The benefit of this program, which includes improvisation exercises, musical theater performances and more, is one that Hutter notices every time he works with them.
“It breaks down barriers,” he said. “It accesses a level of intimacy that many people — that by the time they’re in their 80s they’ve lost that — with maybe another person or group.”
Hutter, 60, works with the seniors, or “geezers” as he affectionately calls them — “They hate it,” he said, laughing — to come out of their comfort zones through acting.
“My rule is to go into their comfort zone and then take them out of it,” he said. “I stretch my actors. I take them to a place that’s further or deeper than they thought they could or might want to go, and they’re always grateful afterwards that I’ve taken them there.”
With the Jewish residents he works with, Hutter, who is Jewish himself, noticed that there is a stronger affinity for the arts. They love their subscriptions to the theater, he said, and the proximity to these activities is part of the attraction to places like Shannondell.
With performing, they work with other people to access the intimacy Hutter described and, in the process, find a sense of belonging.
“I really think the theater provides them with a real strong sense of belonging,” Hutter said. “Not that the knitting group or the bingo group doesn’t, but this is more powerful because you’re interacting with your fellow performers and residents.”
He sees the program and theater itself as a way of tapping into the seniors’ “vitality” in ways that other activities might not.
“If people want intellectual stimulation, they’ll go to a lecture, but my whole philosophy is: People go to the theatre to express their feelings,” he said. “That’s why we love musicals: Music, in general, it touches our hearts in a way that going to a current event lecture might not.”
Sidney and Dolores Tessler have resided at Shannondell for a little more than four years.
They have kept busy through many programs — from arts programs, lectures and even concerts.
“Seniors don’t want to just sit and do nothing,” said Dolores Tessler, 85.
While the community isn’t entirely Jewish, Sidney Tessler, 90, decided to start a club that attracts those who are Jewish to get involved, though there are many non-Jews who participate as well.
“They want to learn more, they want to hear more about Jewish history,” said Dolores Tessler of the non-Jews who participate. “They’re very interested in the topics, learning about how other people do things or live.”
The Jewish Interest Group has brought in speakers such as the Israeli Consul General, musical performances, lectures about topics such as Jewish history and Jewish humor — all in the spirit of bringing people together, both Jewish and not Jewish.
They also bring in a maestro two or three times a year who talks about Jewish composers of waltzes, to attract the musically inclined.
“We try to vary the topics,” Tessler said. “We’ve had a lot of good success with the people that have come.”
For her, an art and poetry enthusiast, she has found many ways to keep herself occupied, and so have many others who live there.
“If I were speaking on behalf of the whole community, there would be a lot of things I could tell you about because there are so many things of varied interest here,” she said. “I’ve gotten into an art program. We’re kept very busy with all kinds of lectures and programs and musical programs.”
The benefit of theatrical activities and musical performances also includes transformation.
Benjamin Lloyd founded Elkins Park-based White Pines Productions back in 2009.
It offers classes and opportunities to engage in performance for all ages, from kids to adults. Its senior theater initiative — similar to Philly Senior Stage — brings theater to senior communities through its Bright Invention ensemble of performers.
“White Pines’ mission is transform people’s lives through performance creativity, and that leads us into many diverse communities,” Lloyd said.
For Lloyd, this initiative was a personal one. His grandmother was in a home for a while — unhappily so, to the point where she committed suicide in 1999.
He wanted to ensure others did not have that same experience.
Through theater and working on improvisation and other aspects of performance, seniors gather and work with one another and can explore their own stories.
The collaborative nature of theater brings people together and “out of isolation,” Lloyd said.
One way he has helped bring senior residents out of their shells was through not only acting out other people’s stories that have already been written, but also by acting out their own.
At the Sidewater House in Northeast Philadelphia, a Federation Housing senior independent living site, Lloyd established a 12-week workshop residency under the direction of Jerry Perna, founding ensemble member of Bright Invention and director of senior programs for White Pines, which culminated with a performance called “Who We Are,” that guests could share in.
People shared stories of starting their own businesses, even a few Holocaust survivors told their stories.
“We were interested in generating material from their own lives and experiences, so a lot of what Jerry was doing was structured storytelling exercises,” Lloyd elaborated. “In the end, we were so moved by the stories being told.”
His goal is to continue fundraising for these programs so that they can establish a yearlong residency with the community rather than just three months.
Engaging with the arts and performance in this way is beneficial because it brings the seniors together in a fun environment.
While at first, perhaps, the residents might be resistant to communicating, Lloyd has noticed that over time, “people become softer and more vulnerable and in some way more tolerant and forgiving of each other.”
“This is true no matter what age you’re working with,” he said.
He has found that “the older you are, the more hilarious your stories are,” and he wants people to share them with one another through performance.
“This is an attempt on our part to say, you’re alive until you’re dead and as long as you’re alive, you’ve got creativity to share,” he said.
Other arts programs beyond theater have their own benefits, as well.
At Brandywine Senior Living — all 27 locations in 5 states — residents can enjoy programs from the space’s “Escapades…For Life!” which offers activities from cooking to karaoke to gambling.
From theater groups such as “Curtain Call” to classes for budding artists through its “Artists’ Palette” program, resident can partake in many different activities.
“They are important because it keeps our residents engaged and stimulated,” said Krissi Kressler, corporate director of program excellence. “They are vibrant, energetic, rich, educational programs and sometimes people believe that maybe the senior population doesn’t need that, they’ve done that, but it’s human nature to want to learn things and want to be a part of something bigger — and that’s what we provide for our residents.”
Through “Cooking with Class,” residents partake in a cooking demonstration with the chefs of the facility “Rachael Ray”- style, Kressler said, and have the chance to try the culinary creation at the end.
They explore different themes each month to expand their palates. In April, for example, residents will try Jewish-American cuisine, which will be one recipe submitted by a resident or family member that they will try together.
In January 2016, Brandywine is starting a 10-week pilot partnership with the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts called “Life Through Art: My Life Story” to provide lessons for residents at its Haverford Estates and Upper Providence facilities, whether they are experienced artists or newcomers.
These kinds of programs are created to move away from the stereotypical ideas people have about senior communities.
“We’re trying to get away from that old-school thinking of senior living,” Kressler said. “We’re bringing the senior population into today’s world. Bingo is something we almost don’t mention anymore.”
And through these arts programs — in addition to university-style lectures brought in about topics from the story of wine in America to a journey through theater history — the residents have a chance to reconnect with their passions.
“The benefits of any arts programs are endless,” Kressler said. “We could be rekindling an interest of theirs. Maybe they were an artist years ago, and the goal is to not think of them as, ‘Oh they were an artist,’ they are an artist, and we want to make sure we bring that to the forefront for all of our residents.
“You’re never too old to learn something new, regardless of age.”
Judging by her vintage card collection, Marissa Stern isn’t joking about enjoying her bingo games.


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