Meryl Klein is on a mission to bring color, music, movement and beauty to senior citizens throughout the Mid-South.
The executive director of Creative Aging Mid-South has built a roster of local professional singers, musicians, visual artists, storytellers, actors and workshop artists to create meaningful artistic experiences for elderly audiences.
“We’re well-known among professionals in the aging industry, but I believe we’re a best-kept secret outside that realm,” she said.
Since its beginnings in 2004, the nonprofit organization has delivered more than 3,000 performances and workshops to 56 area facilities, reaching more than 20,000 older adults in the Mid-South. They also sometimes visit homebound elders.
Think of it as a little bit like Meals on Wheels, but with fine art instead of food.
And in fact, during the early days of the organization, Klein and some of her performers would actually accompany Meals on Wheels during food deliveries and play music or sing for some of those clients.
“Once when we were finished, one lady looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, ‘God bless you,’” Klein said.
Now, the group focuses primarily on partnering with assisted living centers, senior centers, community centers and other facilities to bring performances and workshops to them on a regular basis.
One of those facilities is Parkway Health and Rehabilitation Center.
“We are in love with Creative Aging,” said Activities Assistant Sierra Traylor who was in the process of preparing the residents for a visit from Creative Aging singer Jewel Jones.
In 2013, Parkway received a grant from Creative Aging Mid-South that enabled the facility to receive one free visit a month from the organization’s artists. Usually, facilities buy memberships to Creative Aging Mid-South’s services, and that money goes toward paying the artists and keeping the organization running. Grants, however, are also available.
“We always have activities for our residents, but trying to get nice things like performers to come in and entertain them can be costly,” Traylor said. “That’s why we were so grateful for the grant we received from Creative Aging.”
The most popular Creative Aging performances at Parkway are the musical ones.
“They’ve got a great collection of artists at Creative Aging and they offer all kinds of things, but our residents prefer musical performances, mostly jazz,” Traylor said. “The residents will absolutely have lots of requests and many of them will sing along very loudly. You can always touch anybody with music.”
Traylor said the experience is beneficial to the residents on a number of levels.
“It is so therapeutic for the residents. Sometimes it’ll trigger a memory. Once one of them who was never very physically active actually stood up and started to dance. And I’ve seen some who almost never smile actually smile during this music.”
As to the therapeutic angle, the National Institute for Aging (NIA) agrees that the intersection of arts and aging may hold great potential for positive outcomes. In May 2013, the institute teamed up with the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institute of Health (NIH), and the NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Science Research to begin researching the effects of the arts on the aging process. The partnership’s ultimate goal is to find ways to use the arts to improve elderly people’s lives, backed by more rigorously conducted research than previous endeavors.
Although this latest research will continue through 2014, preliminary studies already show improvements in quality of life and cognitive abilities among study participants age 65 to 94 who took acting or singing classes over a four-week period. (A complete description of the research can be found at nia.nih.gov/newsroom/features/intersection-arts-and-aging.)
Most artists who work with Creative Aging Mid-South discover that the benefits of the performances aren’t limited to the audiences. Singer/musician Rick Nethery, who leads the Memphis band The Beat Generation and performs as part of The Beverly Brothers guitar duo for Creative Aging, says the experience has made him a more complete performer.
“I’m 58. I’ve made this my career my whole life. So when I started with Creative Aging, I brought what I knew about show business with me into retirement homes. But then I learned I had a lot more to learn about being a performer,” he said. “I learned it’s not about just me any more. The residents of these retirement homes, they don’t really care about you as an artist. They want something sincere. So you learn this whole other chapter about how to relate to the audience.”
Consequently, he’s made many friends with the residents of the facilities where he performs.
“It’s not just about performing and getting out of there and getting on with your life,” he said. “The time before and after the performance is just as important if you sincerely take a moment to talk with these people. They’ve lived through everything you’re going through and everything you’re going to go through, so how could you not show them some respect and take a minute to talk with them? I guarantee that 99 times out of 100 you’ll walk away with a bit more knowledge.”
The public is always welcome at any of Creative Aging Mid-South’s performances and workshops at the various senior centers and residential facilities. For more information on Creative Aging Mid-South, including a calendar of all the events, visit the website at creativeagingmidsouth.org.