Commentary: Choreographer Liz Lerman on the ups and downs of aging

Laura Hambleton, Washington Post, 6/3/13

As a choreographer in her 20s, Liz Lerman did something unusual: She put residents of a senior citizens home in her productions. "In 1975, when I first started dancing with old people, it was completely weird," Lerman said. Yet, "I'm not the first person to dance with old people. Old people have been dancing for thousands of years as part of ritual." Lerman, who has won numerous honors, including a MacArthur "genius" award in 2002, went on to create the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in 1976, mixing older dancers with highly trained, young ones. Now 65 years old, Lerman is approaching the age of those elderly dancers. How does that feel? "Very strange. On the one hand, I feel like I should resign the field to the people coming up, be a guide, a mentor, help them make what they're going to make. There's another part of me that just doesn't want to do that. I still have so much to say and do." Can [she] imagine a life not doing what [she does]? "Not very well. I was just wondering this yesterday: Could I do nothing for a while? I'm not very good at that. I love my work. But I like also that I get to teach, get to think, get to give talks, try to make sense of the world. I have chosen to make sense of the world, both physically and intellectually. I have a sense about the limited amount of time I have in front of me. I don't feel I have the same endless amount of time to experiment. I have to be a little bit better at focusing sooner. I was just saying to my husband this morning, 'The boomers are never going to let other people be on stage. The boomers are going to be on stage their whole life,' and it's true. They're not retiring. Boomers are saying, 'No, this is my world.'"


Commentary: Pursuing the arts after age 60

Dr. Francine Toder, guest post on The Artist's Road blog, 5/8/13

When I decided to start playing the cello at age 70, I was dissuaded by well-intentioned people for all kinds of reasons. They said, "You need to start young." "You'll never get good." "What's the point at this stage in life?" "It's too difficult, try the recorder." The rationale to pursue the arts as a rank beginner after age 55 requires a non-traditional way of thinking. It isn't about talent, future benefits, fame, or acknowledgment by others. It's a boundless journey or an end in itself without rules or requirements.  While pursuing the arts after 60 has a different goal than earlier in life, it also has a different trajectory. It might not start with burning passion. Instead it may begin by meandering down a path propelled by shifting priorities and nagging questions like, "What's next?" and "If not now, when." These could be the quintessential questions of [my book] The Vintage Years: Finding Your Inner Artist (Writer, Musician, Visual Artist) After Sixty. Many of us are still physically active, intellectually curious, emotionally stable, and yearning for meaningful ways to spend our time. The neuroscience literature has happily reversed itself from what I learned in graduate school nearly a half century ago. Back then the prevailing ideas about the brain suggested an irreversible decline beginning about age 30. In fact, throughout all of life, nerve cells do indeed increase along with the connections linking brain cells! I hypothesized that taking up a fine art form at this life stage could maximally stimulate the brain. Then I set out to see if this was true. I started by interviewing late-blooming artists, those who didn't pursue their art until after age 55. Much has been written about the need to stay physically fit as we age but only recently has there been a focus on ways to maintain cognitive sharpness. The brain, like a muscle, benefits from vigorous use and there are some activities that seem to fuel the brain maximally. I've identified a triad of ingredients that serve as a robust tonic for the aging brain: newness or novelty, complexity, [and] problem solving. Expressing oneself through the fine arts is the ideal way to harness these elements.


Commentary: At the intersection of arts and aging

National Institute of Aging website, May 29, 2013

Many people enjoy some kind of arts activity...participating in the arts makes many of us feel good. But does it have any effect on the health and well-being of older people? Can participating in an arts activity slow or stop cognitive decline? To explore such questions, NIA teamed up with the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, and the NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Science Research. In November 2012, the NEA, NIA, NCCAM, and OBSSR hosted a workshop to review the current state of research on the arts, health, and well-being in older Americans. The goal is to support collaborative, translational research between academic research centers and community-based organizations to develop and test interventions and programs to help older people remain healthy and independent. Most of the past studies on the benefits of the arts have not met the rigorous standards of scientific research. Recently, NIA funded an arts-related project in Elmhurst, IL. The researchers are expanding a theater training program for older people, which in initial studies showed improved cognition and social engagement for participants. Dr. Tony Noice, an actor and educator, conducted theater training classes [with] participants [who] ranged in age from 65 to 94. "On the objective cognitive measures, the acting group improved more than the singing group and the control group," said Noice. "On the quality-of-life measures, singing showed the same improvement as acting. There was also a social benefit." Another study, comparing visual arts and acting produced similar results, and some 4 months after the training, the researchers found that the improvement had not declined. "We believe this program can be implemented fairly easily on the community level," said Noice. "Acting is a particularly good choice for this type of program. Most other activities like playing a musical instrument, singing, or dancing, require some previous training or talent. With acting instruction, you just have to be able to walk, talk, and think."


Commentary: Can theatre help us to better understand the elderly?

Allison Meier,, 5/27/13

Despite the regular way it ticks by, time doesn't always seem to move at a logical pace. Days blur gradually from one to the next, yet it can also feel like years have escaped in a sudden flash. This paradox of time is central to Sprat Theatre Company's One Day in the Life of Henri Shnuffle, [a recently-closed immersive theater piece about] the experience of time for the elderly. Audience members arrive to "Henri Shnuffle's apartment" and follow his day of memories and slow movement. The piece, written and directed by Ryan Elisabeth Reid, can evoke the feelings of discomfort of a long afternoon with your grandparents, where something as simple as getting dressed can take an agonizing age of time, even with many missed buttons. Everything moves at a glacial rate for old Shnuffle, a long retired French professor who once fell in love with an American girl in Paris. But the speed, or lack thereof, does draw you into his world of aching bones and sudden flashes of memory and endear you to his vulnerability and fragility. The clocks [on the set] are a very unsubtle theme, from the crowd of them on one wall with all different times, to even a wristwatch hanging off the ears of the "cat." Time is both counting down and moving forward. As Shnuffles says, "I keep living life over," and through spending a day (or just the hour of the performance) with him there is this thoughtful glimpse into how time can both fall away and come back at once.

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