Art for the Aging

Local arts organizations help Austin's aging folks express themselves

Local arts organizations help Austin's aging folks express themselves

Austin might be a “young” city, but it’s also a city that nobody wants to leave. For all of the youngsters coming to Austin for our live music, barbecue and dive bars, there are a bunch of adults who came years ago for the same reasons and stayed — to nurture relationships, raise children and keep jamming and drinking while contributing to our eclectic, artsy town.

The joke may be that Austin is where young people go to retire, but as Austin grows, it’s becoming a place where people come and stay engaged, continuing to shape our community and actually retiring here. Austin has the country's fastest-growing population between the ages of 55 and 65. (We also probably have the number-one population of hippest people aged 55 to 65.)

 The joke may be that Austin is where young people go to retire, but as Austin grows, it’s becoming a place where people come to actually retire. 

“Austin must begin to think about becoming a city that continues to offer great services and opportunities to everyone, regardless of age,” explains Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who created the Mayor’s Task Force on Aging in 2012 as a way of discussing the challenges of aging populations.

The goals of the task force are to encourage not only providing more effective and efficient ways of caring for Austin’s seniors but embracing the opportunities of an aging population in our community as well. 

One very Austin way to provide support to our seniors and enrich our community? The arts, obviously. In a collaborative pilot project between two Austin arts organizations — Badgerdog (a program of the Austin Public Library Friends Foundation) and Mobile Art — caregivers and care recipients recently participated in workshops meant to provide emotional support, mental stimulation and self-reflection through a creative outlet.

Through Badgerdog, caregivers worked with professional writers to hone their poetry- and prose-writing skills to express some of the challenges and experiences of caring for aging loved ones. At the same time, care recipients worked with Mobile Art volunteers to create visual arts: sculpture, painting, pottery and collage. The project was funded by St. David’s Foundation’s “Health Angels," a community fund created to address the growing needs of the aging population in Texas. 

The workshops give participants ways of connecting more deeply with loved ones, as well as opening up a dialog and a creating community for Austin residents struggling with similar issues of aging and caregiving. Stephanie Peco, a participant who has been caring for her husband, Keith, since his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, says, “Things came out — words, feelings, conclusions — that I hadn’t known were there.”

Peco’s poetry — published in When I Bloom, an anthology that contains written work by the caregivers alongside artwork by the care recipients and a short narrative of their relationship — is both lovely and hard-hitting.  In her poem “A Marriage,” she chronicles the disorienting effects of Alzheimer’s on tangible household things, along with her own complex emotions (and devotion) as a caregiver. 

“Your glasses are on your head./ Your keys are in your other pants./ The Mayonnaise is in the refrigerator,” she writes. “My fear is waiting on the bedside table…My grief is in my purse….I’ll be the catch-it bowl for you./ You can throw everything in me/and know always/where it is.” 

Cecily Sailer, the Library Foundation’s program manager, described Peco sharing her poem with the caregivers in her workshop: “The room went silent … the group was then laughing and crying all at once.” 

On Tuesday, November 19, 11:30 am - 1:30 pm, at Mercury Hall, the three participating organizations will host a reading and art exhibition featuring work created in the workshops before a limited audience of 90 guests (reservations were filling up quickly at press time). Participants will see their work published for the first time in When I Bloom, and guests will be able to take in — and take home — the powerful art created from the caregivers' and caretakers' experiences.

As Austin's population ages, it's important to recognize and cultivate efforts to be an “age-friendly” town. It's encouraging to see programs that are dedicated to bringing supportive and creative outlets to our seniors — and meaningful, important art to the rest of us. 

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November is National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month and National Caregiver Month. In the United States, there are more than 15 million Alzheimer's and dementia caregivers, and this is the month we honor them. Find out more at: http://www.alz.org/care/honor-

caregiver.asp#ixzz2l6YpC7EM

Though When I Bloom is a limited-edition volume, copies can be obtained by contacting info@austinlibrary.org.

For more about information about Badgerdog's writing programs, email info@austinlibrary.org. To learn more about Mobile Art, email mobileart@mail.com. 

Man paints at Austin Library Event
Gene Gold works on a piece of art at a Mobile Art event. Photo courtesy of Austin Public Library Friend Foundation/ Facebook