ArtsOhio Blog

The ArtsOhio Blog is the Ohio Arts Council's way to share stories that highlight the arts in Ohio, feedback from the field, interviews with artists and staff, and more. Sign up for the ArtsOhio newsletter to receive a curated selection of posts each month.

Conversation on Creative Aging

In early 2016, the Ohio Arts Council launched the Creative Aging Ohio initiative, the agency’s first learning cohort dedicated to creating hands-on arts experiences for older adults. Recently, the OAC sat down with participants from the initiative to hear what they’ve learned over the past few months as they’ve developed, refined, and implemented their programs. Below are some of the highlights from our conversation with Lasse Hiltunen, president of the Finnish Heritage Museum in Fairport Harbor; Betsey Zenk Nuseibeh, executive director of Melodic Connections in Cincinnati; and Jill Frankel, director of the Solon Senior Center in Solon, with Natalie Bauman, founder and CEO of Digital Mosaic, a technology company.


OHIO ARTS COUNCIL: CAN YOU TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOUR ORGANIZATION AND YOUR CREATIVE AGING PROGRAM?

Finnish Museum Creative AgingLasse Hiltunen: Sure! The Finnish Heritage Museum is located in Fairport Harbor and we’re dedicated to preserving Finnish and Finnish-American history and culture. Last year, the museum put on a theatre production that involved folks throughout the Fairport Harbor community and it was a huge success. This year, we’re producing 30 short plays inspired by themes related to family ancestry and Finnish culture that will be performed in about 60 minutes. Most of the people participating are seniors, so the process has given older adults the opportunity to work with people of all ages to write and perform their pieces.

Betsey Zenk Nuseibeh: Melodic Connections is a community music studio, and our creative aging project is a choir for older adults living with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers called Open Harmony, which we’ve partnered with the Alzheimer’s Association of Cincinnati to create. We started Open Harmony because we know we have a large and growing Alzheimer’s population in our city, but music services aren’t always available in their care facilities. The choir is giving them a chance to share their talent with the community and to find support during a time when they're experiencing some loss in their lives.

Jill Frankel: At the Solon Senior Center, our goal is to assist help older adults remain independent, active, and engaged for as long as possible. We also want to get more seniors comfortable with technology, so to do that, we’re using Digital Mosaic’s SimplyTold™ video recording app – which Natalie Bauman’s company developed – for two purposes. First, to promote storytelling among seniors, especially those who don’t get to see their family often. They can record and share videos to give them a better understanding of what they do each day, and use our discussion prompts to have a conversation across the app. The second is to use video to help our singers and performance artists rehearse and review their practice. For example, we’ll pre-record harmonies that choir members can listen to and practice with at home.  

OAC: HOW HAVE YOU SEEN THE SENIORS PARTICIPATING IN YOUR PROGRAMS CHANGE THROUGHOUT THE PROCESS?

Betsey Zenk Nuseibeh: Public performance is a key part of every program at Melodic Connections, but when we reminded our seniors this year that we were making preparations for a public show, the reaction wasn’t immediately positive. Some folks were a little agitated and nervous at the thought of performing in a new space in front of people. So we heard some of their concerns and went back to work on their suggestions. A couple weeks later after rehearsal, three couples in the program all of a sudden said, “Hey, we sound pretty good! Maybe we should think about taking our choir on the road...” and the excitement just grew from there. We realized they needed time to warm up to the idea of performing and to tap into that confidence that comes with practice. It also helped that we shared ownership over the process and moved the performance to a location they already knew. Now they’re excited about showing their families and friends what they can do.

Lasse Hiltunen: We’re also seeing that confidence carry over in more of our older adults. Generally, Finns are pretty quiet and aren’t always the first to talk. But now, these older adults who normally wouldn’t get up and say anything in front of a group are no longer hesitant to do that. For example, if we run into a challenge during one of our program meetings, one of our members will lead us through a discussion and we’ll have it solved by the end. Or if we give the group only one minute to form an idea and write a short vignette, by they end of that minute, they’re jumping up and ready to perform. They think, “OK, I can do this. I can share my thoughts and feelings and I want to show you what I’m capable of.”

Natalie Bauman: It's exciting to now see enthusiasm for something that, just a few months ago, many started with fear. For example, now that folks have gotten use to the technology with the SimplyTold app, they can’t imagine not being able to go home and view recordings of their rehearsals because it’s really upped the quality of their performances. It also took some time for some of the seniors to come around to using the app’s storytelling component. When we initially presented the idea, folks would look at us like we had horns growing out of our heads and say, “I don’t really have anything that I want to share. Why would I want to tell anybody about that part of my life?” But by using the themes and prompts to start discussions, they started developing their own ideas for topics to share with their families. Recently, we had a couple come in with souvenirs and pictures from their trip to Scotland, and they directed us on how to shoot the video! They really owned the process and made a call about how they wanted their story to look and sound.

OAC: A COMMON THEME THAT COMES UP IN THE CREATIVE AGING FIELD IS THE POWER OF LANGUAGE. HOW WE TALK ABOUT OLDER ADULTS HAS THE POWER TO SHIFT PERCEPTIONS—BOTH POSITIVELY AND NEGATIVELY—ABOUT THEIR CAPABILITIES AND INTERESTS. HOW HAVE YOU NAVIGATED THAT IN YOUR WORK? 

Betsey Zenk Nuseibeh: Our focus has always been to bring together groups that tend to be on the periphery in our community and to show them and everyone else that they can contribute just as much to the arts. So we’re adamant that we talk about any person we work with as a student, and the older adults in Open Harmony are no different—no matter their age, they’re coming to learn. It’s just a part of our philosophy as a community music studio.

Jill Frankel: We made the choice to describe the participants in our programs as “active” older adults. Many seniors don’t want to be branded as just older people – they want to be seen for who they are: active and engaged. And they do get around! Whether it’s playing pickleball or doing yoga or performance art, they’re on the go.

OAC: HOW HAVE YOU BEEN ABLE TO GROW OR REFINE YOUR PROGRAMS THIS PAST YEAR BY PARTICIPATING IN THE CREATIVE AGING OHIO INITIATIVE?

Lasse Hiltunen: Our creative aging program this year is essentially a spin-off of the full theatrical performance we developed last year, which the OAC also helped to support, and now people in the community think one of the benefits of being involved in the museum is getting to experience and participate in these shows. It’s really helping us continue to bring people into the museum. For instance, we have a 97-year-old friend named Robert who used to come in every week with his wife. Recently his wife passed away, and Robert still comes in and spends 2-3 hours talking with the museum staff and visitors. It’s the highlight of his week.

Melodic Connections GroupNatalie Bauman: One of the biggest challenges we suspected we would face introducing the SimplyTold app was a fear of learning new technology. This type of service is very new and we’re creating something that hasn’t been done before, so it’s a learning experience for us too. The grant allowed us to focus on building out the educational component. We’ve been fine-tuning our training sessions and best practices to teach seniors and help them shift from being fearful to accepting and excited about mastering a new tool.

Betsey Zenk Nuseibeh: The Alzheimer’s Association of Cincinnati is a longstanding institution, and we knew they had been wanting to provide more music services for some time. When the opportunity came to participate in the Creative Aging Ohio initiative, we jumped on the opportunity because we knew how beneficial it would be to create a program like this. The funding not only helped that happen, but allowed us to collaborate with other experts in the field serving the same population.

OAC: WHAT’S ONE LESSON YOU’VE LEARNED FROM WORKING WITH OLDER ADULTS THAT YOU WANT EVERYONE TO KNOW?

Lasse Hiltunen: I’m turning 71 soon and I’m not just some old guy who’s ready to call it quits. I’m still going strong. I think we’re seeing this sudden creative explosion because older adults want to try new things and we’re being given more opportunities to do so. To use a metaphor, we’re not ready to close the door on the shaft in our minds and cease operation. There are still pearls of wisdom and golden nuggets to explore, and we’re ready to share them with the public.

Betsey Zenk Nuseibeh: Absolutely, and it’s important for older adults to continue having those new experiences. Many of our participants have Alzheimer’s, and while we use music as a tool for reminiscing and revisiting the past, we also want them to learn while they’re with us. That could be as simple as taking a familiar song and finding a new arrangement for them to learn and master. Watching them succeed has been so rewarding, and it’s also helped their caregivers to see them in a different light.

Jill Frankel: Seniors may have some challenges to work around as they get older, but most of them are the same people they’ve always been—they just want to find new ways to express themselves. And now they have the luxury of time to spend on things that they probably couldn’t when they were working and raising families. They go from activity to activity, and they are dedicated and enthusiastic and have so much to offer. This work is giving a lot of older adults an opportunity to celebrate where they are right now in their lives.


The OAC will launch its second community of practice for the Creative Aging Ohio initiative in summer 2016. Visit oac.ohio.gov/Resources/Current-Initiatives for more information on Creative Aging Ohio and other OAC initiatives.  Images courtesy of (in order of appearance) the Finnish Museum and Melodic Connections.



Comments are closed.

Sign Up for the Monthly Newsletter

From deadline reminders to artist interviews--sign up to receive the monthly ArtsOhio newsletter directly to your inbox.

* indicates required
Which audience do you identify with the most?

View previous campaigns.



Rhodes State Office Tower | 30 E. Broad Street, 33rd Floor, Columbus, Ohio 43215-3414
Phone: 614-466-2613
Fax: 614-466-4494

subscribe