I can’t wait to get old. To become wrinkled, to move slower, become more forgetful, be less productive than younger workers. And to inevitably lose my independence. My body fills with a flash of panic. My gut heavy with dread as it moves up into my chest. My breath becomes shallower as I realize my sense of helplessness to fight off the inevitable creep of old age.
And if we believe our cultural stereotypes in the US, that is indeed where we’re all predictably headed. As early as 1997, researchers started finding wide-spread “resentment and disdain of older people” in American society (Aging and Old Age, Posner, 1997). It’s an invisible force, but we internalize what it means to be an older adult.
An invisible force creates a self-fulfilling prophecy
We see ourselves the way culture tells us to – and even younger people will see themselves through jaded glasses as they age. In fact, studies have shown that seniors’ physical abilities such as memory, handwriting, and walking ability decreased if study participants were told negative stereotypes – like those in the first paragraph. But they improved if positive stereotypes were told – like becoming wise (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Levy, 1996).
Yet, in many cultures getting old is respected. Being an elder is the pinnacle of wisdom and status in places like China, Greece, Korea, and India, and even among Native Americans and ancient Romans. Younger family members want to learn from the life experiences of their elders. Is there anything we can do to change our stereotype of what it means to be a senior in the US?
A one-woman crusade to change the narrative of aging
Amy Henderson is one woman determined to change that narrative of aging in the US to a positive one. She is the Lead Gerontologist at the Age Wise Institute at the National University of Natural Medicine. She worked closely with many residents of the respected Mary’s Woods Retirement Community during her graduate program. And she knew intimately that many of these seniors did not reflect the widely-held stereotypes about aging.
So in 2016, Amy started a non-profit called the Geezer Gallery to start changing the image of older adults. It focused on highlighting and empowering older adults in two surprising ways:
- Geezer Gallery: She opened a gallery at the Artists Repertory Theater on 15th and Morrison that only showcases artists who are 60 years or older. All the exhibitions tie thematically to the performances.
- Capturing Time: She also developed an art and writing program called “Capturing Time” to validate the stories of seniors. She dubbed it “therapy through art.”
From gut feeling to tangible results
Amy piloted the “Capturing Time” program at Mary’s Woods and received rave reviews. But she needed a way to prove it was working. The short-term answer was to develop a qualitative survey with the National Association for Creativity in Aging in Washington, DC.
And the test confirmed what her gut was telling her. It was connecting people and starting relationships. It was lowering depression and anxiety. And overall it was increasing social engagement.
It wasn’t long before her program caught the eye of researchers at OHSU. She was the first recipient of an OHSU grant for Alzheimer’s research that wasn’t a bio-medical intervention. OHSU researchers developed a much more in-depth assessment that required neurological testing. “The results of the OHSU study confirmed our initial survey,” said Amy. “And now we know for sure we are delivering a quality program that works.” OHSU is currently submitting the results for publication.
The generous donors behind the Maybelle Center connection
The Geezer Gallery and Maybelle Center may never have met if it weren’t for one determined member at Macdonald Residence (at Maybelle Center). She contacted Amy multiple times over a period of about a year to ask what it would take to bring the program to Maybelle Center. And thanks to the Autzen Foundation and generous donors at Mary’s Woods, Amy was able to bring the “Capturing Time” workshop to Maybelle Center in 2016.
You could see the tears beginning to well up in Amy’s eyes as she recounts some of the stories from the first class:
“One member told about a journey of her deceased guide dog through his eyes. Another talked about her journey each day with mental illness to a tree that provided solace.” And while each story was unique, all came back home with their stories validated and a sense of healing.
And now Geezer Gallery is bringing the program back to Maybelle Center this spring. The program is supported by a grant from the Maybelle Clark Macdonald Fund and by donors at Mary’s Woods – both long-time funders of Maybelle Center.
Fifteen new members will spend twelve weeks reflecting on a meaningful part of their lives – laughing, crying and telling their stories through art and word. The program culminates with a white tablecloth event at Mary’s Woods, where each participant will share a meaningful part of their story.
Come journey with us
We have a spot just for you! If you are an adult over 60 years of age, we would love to have you join us. We will meet for twelve weeks on Wednesday afternoons from 1-3PM, starting April 26th.
What will the classes be like? You will be experimenting with new art techniques that you’ve probably never had the chance to try. And you’ll come home with a bound book of your art and story.
You can contact Laurie Smith at 971-202-7456 or firstname.lastname@example.org to see if there is still space available.