Photo by Herb Scher for Lifetime Arts

Creative Aging in Libraries Catches On Nationwide

Public Libraries across the country are starting to respond to the size and diversity of the nation’s growing older adult population.  They are experimenting with new approaches to serving Boomers and other generations of active older adults, offering job counseling services, health education, housing information, match-ups for community volunteering, financial planning advice and classes in PhotoShop and social media.

Creative Aging programs, or arts education for older adults, are one of the most promising indications of the trend towards “50+ Library Services”.  Taught by trained artist-educators, Creative Aging programs reflect new research on older adults that offers evidence for the benefits of skills development and social engagement.  Older adults who participate in structured, sequential arts education with peers have lower rates of illness and show fewer signs of the cognitive declines that can occur through social isolation.  The also reflect the positive benefits of the sense of accomplishment that comes through creative expression.

Where are Creative Aging Programs taking place?  What disciplines are offered?  How do the programs work and how are they funded?

The answers to these questions will vary, depending on the program model adopted by a library or library system. the artist-educator selected by a library, the interests and needs of the local community, and the availability of local or national funding to cover artist’s fees and supplies.

The most prominent of the current library-based Creative Aging Programs are being carried out under the aegis of Lifetime Artsa national non-profit organization that encourages positive aging by promoting the inclusion of professional arts programs in organizations that serve older adults, including public libraries. The Lifetime Arts program model involves 6 or 8-part series of classes in one of a number of disciplines, including dance, music, drawing, painting and writing.  Classes are designed to promote meaningful skills development so that participants gain a sense of mastery and accomplishment.  The teaching artists are also trained to encourage social interaction among class members.  To date, program costs have been covered by national or local foundations, IMLS, and library Friends groups.

Participants, Lifetime Arts' Creative Aging Programs, Westchester County, NY                                             Photo by Herb Scher
Participants, Creative Aging Program, Westchester County  (NY) Library System                                             Photo by Herb Scher

Lifetime Arts started working with libraries through an initial partnership with the Westchester (NY) Library System.  With funding from private foundations the work was then expanded to New York Public Library and then to Brooklyn Public Library. Currently, with IMLS funding, Lifetime Arts is collaborating with seven library system partners across New York State to carry out the Creative Aging in New York Libraries Project.  In addition, through funding from Metlife Foundation and other national funders Lifetime Arts has started to expand to libraries nationwide. During 2012-2013 arts education programs are being offered at local libraries in Boston, Houston, Brooklyn and Miami-Dade Library (FL).

Lifetime Arts works with participating library systems to train host librarians in such skills as selecting an artist-educator and building partnerships with local arts and aging organizations.  Lifetime Arts also trains teaching artists to work within the library setting; helps library systems find funding for materials and artists fees; assists with documentation and evaluation; and supports librarians in planning and carrying out culminating events.

In 2012 the Metlife Foundation awarded Lifetime Arts its annual Creativity and Aging in America Leadership Award, which is given to three outstanding programs in health and wellness, lifelong learning and community engagement.  Lifetime Arts is the only award recipient to have developed programs specifically with public libraries.

The Lifetime Arts programs have proven so successful that participating library systems are reporting overflow registration and strong community response to the culminating events.  The Miami-Herald recently featured the classes  taking place in Miami.  In New York City the Lifetime Arts programs are expanding to include all three library systems:  New York Public Library: Brooklyn Public Library; and Queens Public Library.

Throughout the country there are several other efforts to add arts education to library services for older adults, including the following three examples.

  • Allegheny County Library Association’s Create Together: An Intergenerational Arts Program, deigned to bring youth and older adults together share the experience of making art of all kinds for six weeks during the summer months.  The library has a strong tradition of promoting positive aging and aims to “facilitate intergenerational communication through use of the library as a space for cross-age arts instruction and creative expression”.   
  • Hartford Public Library’s Arts and Archives Project, which offered in-depth arts education for older adults in multiple disciplines over two years (2010-2012).  The Project included  sequential, discipline-based classes taught by professional artist-educators; exposure to inspirational objects in the Library’s Hartford History Collections; and a public exhibition with an  opening event to introduce class members’ work to the community.  Comments by Diane Wimbish, a participant in the Arts and Archives Program, reflect participants’ positive reactions to the classes:  “I loved these classes and had no ides I could be so creative.  I never could have taken these classes except that they were free.”  
  • Hennepin County Library’s Art of Aging Project, that featured an exhibit of works by four older women artists featuring their creative and personal responses to growing old.  The artwork on display provided the backdrop for a “visual discourse on aging” throughout the community, including an artists panel discussion, readings, and a performance artists showcase featuring storytelling and singing.  Twin Cities Public Television created and broadcast video biographies of the artists.    

All of these programs are harbingers of the new movement in libraries to engage older adults in meaningful participatory programs that enhance their quality of life.  Creative Aging Programs help to fulfill the basic mission of the library as a lifelong learning institution and also advance the library’s potential as a hub for positive aging.

Learn More

 ALA Pre-Conference on Creative Aging in Public Libraries.  June, 2013.  

Librarians interested in learning how to plan and implement Creative Aging Programs can register for the upcoming  pre-conference on Creative Aging at the American Library Association’s June 2013 Annual conference in Chicago in June 2013.   Diantha Dow Schull, author of 50+ Library Services: Innovation in Action, will be a featured speaker at the pre-conference.

50+ Library Services: Innovation in Action.  Chapter 7: Creativity.  Diantha Dow Schull.  ALA Editions. 2013.        

The Chapter on Creativity in this brand new publication offers an introduction to the field of creative aging and presents an overview of how libraries across America are responding to older adult learners who are interested in the arts.   The book is an excellent overall guide to the trends affecting how libraries perceive and work with older adults, and the new approaches to 50+ services that are being developed by innovative librarians across the country.  There are more than 300 examples of recent library programs addressing issues such as financial planning, health, life phase transitions, new approaches to working and volunteering.  

National Center for Creative Aging.                                                                                                        NCAA is dedicated to fostering an understanding of the vital relationship between creative expression and quality of life for older adults.   NCCA focuses its efforts within three target areas: Health and Wellness; Lifelong Learning; and Community Engagement. 

National Endowment for the Arts.                                                                                                   Through symposia, grants and research projects NEA “seeks to involve older Americans in on-going, excellent, participatory arts experiences”.  See listing of studies and projects supported by NEA in the field of Creative Aging.

Next Chapter Blog, New York Public Library                                                                                                        This blog by Brigid Cahalan, creator of the Next Chapter initiative at New York Public Library, includes commentary on aging issues and examples of multiple programs for active older adults, including Creative Aging Programs, undertaken by the library over the past five years.