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Ten things I learned at The Creative Aging Conference, Washington DC JUNE 2014

So I am sitting in a sun drenched room in a gorgeous little hotel called Hotel Lombardy in Washington DC.

taken at ENCORE! Hands on Creative Aging Training for Artists, hosted by Susan Perlstein and Stuart Kandell

I have just spent four crazy filled days talking about something that previously I would have thought “What…you mean what?”

These four days have opened other worlds for me and in turn hopefully for our community back in Queensland.  I have met gloriously friendly and extremely capable people who have spent years bringing creativity to the elders of their community. Why you may ask? Well I learned that too! Gene Cohen, a revered elder of the NCCA  community dedicated his life to researching the effects of creativity on the elderly. One of his favourite sayings was “Creativity is like Chocolate to the Brain”. NCCA, or National Center for Creative Aging here in Washington ( has based their work on his research and this was their first ever conference. Several Aussies crossed the Pacific to attend, and I did not know any of them, but I know them now: Margret Meahger from Port Macquarie who founded Arts and Health Conference, Australia (its in Melbourne this year and Steve Mayer-Miller who began CrossRoad Arts in Mackay Queensland ( ).

I loved this image: for me, a whimsical image of belonging

I loved this image: for me, a whimsical image of belonging

So what did I learn at this hugely impactful conference? The below points are not chronological. I am allowing the thoughts to emerge as I write, rather than predetermined…I think it is more alive that way, at least for me:

1. There is a very fine line between friendly, open and equal exchange of processes and a slightly condescending tone.

Mostly I witnessed enormous skill where facilitators worked with us in a collaborative and open manner. The challenge is how to present creative arts to people who may have hearing loss, memory loss, dementia, etc. and still remain collaborative. Some of the facilitators were brilliant at this: on our final post conference day, we worked with four facilitators:  who all excelled at connecting to their “clients” (and we were their clients that day) in such a light, fun and respectful way:

  • Jeanie Brindley-Barnett, Co-Founder MacPhail Music for Life
  • Margot Greenlee, Founder, Bodywise Dance
  • George Merced, Associate Artistic Director, Pregones Theater
  • Jeff Nachtigall, Founder Open Studio Projects
I watched exquisite skill, huge sense of humour, “yes-and”, strengths based work.
2. I learned the importance of planning programs and how these plans are not so different from the collaborative rehearsal processes that we use at Force of Circumstance (FOC)  and 4change. I have dreamed on these approaches to include:
  • emphasis on process AND product. Jeff Nachtigall talked about the importance of not sacrificing one for the other, rather allowing both to sit side by side. This is certainly how i see FOC: highly aesthetic productions with a very powerful process.
  • Mastery: that all participants learn new skills. In our case (FOC), the involvement of professional actors from multiple generations opens up opportunities for new learning across the age groups.
  • Social engagement: the importance of sharing the space, food, conversation, as well as the work.  FOC places a lot of emphasis on hosting and it is wonderful to see how this is reflected here in DC.
  • Adult Learning Principles: now this expression was new to me, though the process was not. Check out for more clarification.
3. That artists have summed up the joy of creation so beautifully. Here is a quote from Willa Cather
What was any art but an effort to make a sheath a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining elusive element which is life itself-life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose
3 and 3 again: “Setting an Intention”: Patricia Dubroof, the gallery Director at Iona Senior Services, began her presentation with “lets set an intention”. I loved the language she used. I normally use “what is our goal for today” or “what do we want to dream on”, but “to set an intention” seems to combine both of those things and keeps us firmly in the drivers seat. Thank you Patricia! I will use that expression!
4. That there are so many wonderful organisations dedicated to working with elder, both in homes and in the community. So many intergenerational programs. Such richness, and I feel motivated to bring these ideas back home and begin to implement them. Should I set up a meeting with Campbell Newman (our Premier of Queensland) to discuss where we are going regarding creative ageing?
5. The importance of evaluation: The conference had very simple evaluation forms that we filled out after every session. It covered the content and process, the skills and the logistics.  A very simple evaluation which I loved was suggested:  “If this workshop was a show, how many stars would you give it?” So simple!
I think evaluation is something that artists often fall short of: we are too busy creating our work let alone evaluating it. I think I will create some evaluation forms to have on hold, something that can be pulled out and adjusted depending on the workshop/performance.
6. Our Potential:  something our keynote mentioned is still resonating with me: Mark Agronin, a geriatric psychiatrist, entertained us royally with a beautifully prepared presentation that set the tone for the conference.  First of all he quoted Gene Cohen:
What has been universally denied is the potential. The ultimate expression of potential is Creativity.
Its worth checking out his website:
He also said “the arts bring us together and transcend” and I will add the arts bring us together and transcend limitations and obstacles, and open up the doorway to our enormous potential, regardless of age and circumstance.
7.  We can no longer only focus on K-12 education. We need to change that to “Cradle to Grave”…what a disturbing expression but it really visualises the fact that we never stop learning. and science can now prove that our brains continue to grow as we age, and in fact can work even more effectively.
8. Problem solving is creativity with a capital C: there were so many people wanting to present at this conference, that the solution was bringing several facilitators together on the floor at the same time. So not only did they have to improvise their presentations most of the time, they also had to negotiate relationship. What was so marvellous about this was the modelling that I observed. Most facilitators warmed to this way of working extremely successfully, to the extent that in one particular workshop (Using Storytelling to Build Community and Enhance Cultural Understanding with Cathy Dewitt, Molly Sturges, Russella Bradman and Anthony Hyatt) I was convinced they were a team. Anthony simply joined in with his violin at most appropriate times as Molly and Cathy moved seamlessly between their own presentations.  I think more collaborative conferences and leadership exchange conferences  should risk this format, because not only do you get an insight into multiple ways of working, you also witness the modelling of the process.
9.  There is such a thing as an Age Friendly City. There is a whole movement! And it is international! Again, a meeting with Campbell Newman may be a good idea here: is Brisbane an Age Friendly City?
10. DREAM BIG: all the people I met who have achieved huge things in this area have dreamed big. People like John Zeisel (“I’m Still Here” his book…check out his website who talked about environment not just being a place. It is also how you are welcomed into that space.  His research will enrich mine: the importance of hosting the space as well as providing the place.  Susan Perlstein who founded National Center for Creative Aging ( modelled the way she works with elders: respectful, deep understanding of time, process and needs. This reinforced the importance of ‘know thyself’ when embracing the role of facilitator. The more we know ourselves, the more we can model best practice, and “the medium is the message”.
Thank you National Center for Creative Aging: I have learned so much and hope to take much of it back home and ‘Dream Big’.
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