Ohio Arts Council's Creative Aging Ohio Connects Seniors and Artists

Artists work with senior citizens to encourage self-expression for healthy aging.

Kathy Lynn Gray
Terry Williams hums into a kazoo during a creative aging workshop at Jenkins Terrace, on the Near East Side, as Naomi Williams (no relation) looks on.

Storyteller Lyn Ford had no intention of starting a kazoo band when she encouraged a lively group of senior citizens to hum enthusiastically into the colorful devices.

What she wanted—after she made sure everyone was humming through the right end of the kazoo—was a little silliness, enough to relax even the most cautious senior. Then she could begin what she’d come there to do: help people find a way to tell their stories.

Ford is one of 27 artists who are part of Creative Aging Ohio, an Ohio Arts Council program aimed at engaging senior citizens’ artistic side. Started in 2012 as an artist residency at senior facilities, the program has evolved this year into a series of classes taught by professional artists like Ford.

Jarred Small, an OAC learning coordinator, says the idea is to promote healthy aging by engaging older people in creative arts. Classes are being offered across Ohio, some in person and some online, thanks to a $60,000 grant from the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies in partnership with Aroha Philanthropies.

Artists are trained through Lifetime Arts, a New York-based leader in creative aging programs.

At Jenkins Terrace on the Near East Side, where Ford gathered with eight residents for week two of her seven-week class, everyone willingly went through breathing exercises and kazoo humming with Ford.

“All your stories are important, and all your stories are unique,” Ford told the group. Her hope is that the classes will help students in everyday conversations as well as in creating oral or written narratives.

Resident Roselle Herron, 68, came to the class to learn how to record her family’s history for her grandchildren. “I get nervous thinking about what to write, and we’re learning to rest our minds and relax so we can think about what we want to write,” she says.

Gloria Pearce, 76, echoes that idea, saying she’s open to anything that helps her communicate verbally and on paper. She says Ford’s explanation about how to breathe calmly while talking has already helped her.

The kazoos, Ford explains, not only improve breathing but offer students a playful lesson in how to speak colorfully, with their voices rising and falling in interesting patterns.

At Mill Run Rehabilitation Center in Hilliard, Columbus visual artist Klaire Smith hopes a seven-week class in “paper painting” will give residents the confidence to continue to express themselves artistically. Students in Smith’s class cut or tear colored tissue paper into pieces and glue them to canvas, creating a watercolor look.

Smith believes art can challenge the brain. “A mind that’s in motion stays in motion,” Smith says. “I want to create a space that older people haven’t had to express themselves in.” “We’re going to have a lot of conversations about thoughts and expressions, and about personal expression that can come through a piece of art,” Smith says. “And I’m excited to learn from their experiences, too.”

Ford also is teaching from a place of appreciation for the generations that came before her.

“My elders gave me stories, and I want to give back.”

This story is from the May 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.