Why We Need to Pour Creativity Into Our Elder Care Systems

“Sometimes we’re the only person they see all day,” said Johnny, the Meals on Wheels deliverer who graciously let me shadow him on his route, “Can you imagine that?” Johnny is exactly what Meals on Wheels recipients need: a warm, smiling face who remembers them. During their 20- to 30-second exchange at the door, he asks after these older people. He cares.

More than ever before, older Americans are living alone. AARP has rightly called “social isolation” one of the biggest challenges we will face as an aging society. Research tells us isolation is the health-risk equivalent of 15 cigarettes a day. But its effects can be ameliorated much more fully than a pack-a-day habit. We can do something about it.

Imagine this instead: When you receive a meal, you also get an added bit of nourishment — an invitation to creatively interpret your world.

Artistic Housecalls

Johnny and his team of drivers at Beulah Brinton Community Center in Milwaukee helped my team of artists design and deliver a bit of extra nourishment through the meal system. During 2012-2014, we delivered 45 thought-provoking, poetically phrased questions that invited people to think of themselves and their worlds a little differently. We asked:

  • What do you treasure in your home? And why?
  • What is the most beautiful sound in your home?
  • What are the sounds of your neighborhood?
  • What is something you could teach someone?
  • What is something you would like to learn?

Elders could respond by voicemail or hand deliver the question card back to their meal driver. Over the two years, we created 21 radio segments out of the responses so they could hear and feel part of something bigger. We offered and delivered Artistic Housecalls. The project, called Islands of Milwaukee, culminated in a performance and art installation at City Hall for more than 3,000 people.

Our goal with the project was to test the waters. Could we pour creative engagement into care systems to reach elders wherever they live? Could social connectedness, meaning and purpose — those magic ingredients in well-being — be delivered by phone? By Meals on Wheels? By visits with a home health aide?

A Key to Connection

The answer is yes. This was a pilot, a first run at building a collaborative network and to see if it was possible, so we didn’t get hard data on whether folks felt less isolated. But the drivers felt the impact. They loved reading the cards. They loved seeing the handwriting, which revealed the labor and thought of their elder friends.

The arts are poised to be one of the most powerful tools we have to improve the quality of life of our elders and bring them into connection with their communities. There are great programs emerging to build real artistic skill among our well-elders, drawing people into social connection at libraries (Lifetime Arts), museums and community/cultural centers across the country.  But the arts offer us so much more. The invitation to be creative can, and should, be poured into the water of our care systems. They give care partners — whether they are delivering meals, medicine, mail, housekeeping or transportation — a way to engage in meaningful ways that go beyond the well-trod paths of weather, sports or children long gone. They invite us to see our world, ourselves, and each other differently. They invite us to open, grow and connect.

Hospitals, home care, long-term congregate care, Meals on Wheels, libraries and their Big Read programs, museums and their cultural programming, schools and their educational programming — all can be linked to our care systems.

The arts can, and should, be the soft-tissue of our care systems. They can bring us out of isolation and into relationship as individuals, as groups and as organizations. This is what I call the Creative Care Revolution. That is my waking dream, and TimeSlips (a non-profit that brings creativity into aging-care systems) is working on it today, tomorrow and the next day.

Anne Basting, a professor of Theatre at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee,  is the founder and president of TimeSlips Creative Storytelling. She is also an "Influencer in Aging" for Next Avenue, public media’s first and only national journalism service for America’s booming older population. This piece is reproduced with permission from Ms. Basting and Next Avenue, and is part of the Aging Well Through the Arts special report. The original may be found on Next Avenue

Hero image credit: "Islands of Milwaukee - Artistic Housecalls" by Anne Basting.