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Creative Aging with the Arts in New Jersey

Romanian Folk Musicians performing through the Folk Arts for Homebound program. (photo: New Jersey State Council on the Arts)

The COVID pandemic has shown us how important connection and community are to our mental and physical health. Virtual art events were a lifeline for people of all ages during the months of lockdown and continue to be, while in-person performances, classes and exhibitions reopen.

As New Jersey arts organizations welcome the public back to their theaters, galleries, concert and exhibition halls, and other venues, they continue to be committed to ensuring both physical and programmatic accessibility.

For older adults, research has shown the benefits of lifelong learning in the arts include bringing joy, strengthening social engagement and improving quality of life. When teaching artists work with older adults in any discipline — music, drama, visual arts, creative writing or movement — participants can expand their skills and confidence, as well as build community with others in the class.

The New Jersey State Council on the Arts is an agency of state government, driven by the belief that the arts are central to every element we value most in a modern society —  in good times and in times of challenge — including human understanding, cultural and civic pride, economic opportunity, creative expression, lifelong learning and overall health and wellness.

Through our programs and services, the Council seeks to increase participation in, and access to, arts events, experiences and opportunities for all people — whether they come to the arts as artists, audience members or volunteers.

Through our programs and services, the Council seeks to increase participation in, and access to, arts events, experiences and opportunities for all people — whether they come to the arts as artists, audience members or volunteers.

Mary Eileen Fouratt

Creative Aging initiative

Last spring the Arts Council received a grant from the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies and E.A. Michelson Philanthropy (formerly Aroha Philanthropies) as part of a national initiative, “Leveraging State Investments in Creative Aging.” This Creative Aging initiative is just the latest in the Council’s decades-long effort to ensure that people of all ages, abilities, and backgrounds engage in the arts, and includes:

  • Forming and facilitating a Creative Aging Community of Practice for professionals from a variety of senior service and creative aging backgrounds to meet regularly and discuss topics of mutual relevance.
  • Developing an online knowledge bank of creative aging best practices and resources.
  • Offering the Creative Aging Learning Lab (CALLab) to teaching artists, senior centers and libraries in a cohort-based, 12-month professional development program.

The project will conclude with artist residencies in the participating senior centers and libraries. The Council will be taking our learning from this pilot project to strengthen creative aging projects throughout the state. To receive updates on this and other initiatives, sign up for the Council’s Opportunities for the Field.

Here are a few other resources that help older adults fully engage in the arts in New Jersey:

The Cultural Access Network

In 1992 the Council partnered with the New Jersey Theatre Alliance to establish the Cultural Access Network (CAN) Project to assist New Jersey’s arts organizations in making their programs and facilities accessible to older adults and individuals with disabilities. Since that time, New Jersey arts organizations have led the field in creating accessible programs and venues. Many provide assisted-listening devices, listening device looping for large areas, captioning, ASL-signed performances, large print, Braille, sensory-friendly performances, tactile experiences, audio description, and more.

In addition, New Jersey’s 40 professional theaters have developed virtual tours to give visitors of all ages the chance to see exactly what the physical layout of their theaters are like and now have one-to-one looping for their box offices. In 2020 CAN launched an Accessibility Calendar where you can select the accommodation needed, and a date range, to find accessible programs and performances throughout the state.

Folk Arts for Homebound

Another Council program that is not strictly for seniors but serves many, is the Folk Arts for Homebound (FAFH) program. FAFH was designed to combat social and cultural isolation experienced by those individuals who are unable to leave their homes without assistance from family or caregivers. New Jersey folk artists visit participants to perform or teach a traditional craft in the comfort and privacy of their homes.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual programming allowed FAFH to continue to serve our states’ homebound residents. To learn more or connect with a Folk Arts for Homebound program in your area, email Kim Nguyen, Program Officer, Folk and Traditional Arts.

County Arts Agencies

Many of New Jersey’s 21 County Arts Agencies provide programs for older adults, which are funded through the Council’s Local Arts Program. They are a great resource for older adults to learn more about the arts organizations in their own counties. For information on your county arts agency — often called a cultural and heritage agency commission — email Mary Eileen Fouratt, Program Officer, Access and Community Arts. 

Families First Discovery Pass

The New Jersey State Council on the Arts and the New Jersey Historical Commission have partnered with the NJ Departments of Human Services (DHS) and Health (DOH) to launch New Jersey’s Families First Discovery Pass program. This program provides families and individuals enrolled in state assistance programs with free or highly discounted admission to arts and history organizations, venues, and programs -– both in-person and virtual. The Families First Discovery Pass Program offers broad access to cultural experiences for New Jersey residents while providing opportunities for cultural organizations to engage new audiences with the goal of building long-lasting relationships.

New Jersey’s arts organizations already serve many older residents, but there is always room for more. Whether you want to hone your creative side as a participant, as an audience member, or as a volunteer, the arts keep you engaged with your community as you learn, grow, and make new connections.

About the New Jersey State Council on the Arts

The New Jersey State Council on the Arts, created in 1966, is a division of the NJ Department of State. The Council was established to encourage and foster public interest in the arts; enlarge public and private resources devoted to the arts; promote freedom of expression in the arts, and facilitate the inclusion of art in every public building in New Jersey. The Council receives direct appropriations from the State of New Jersey through a dedicated, renewable Hotel/Motel Occupancy fee, as well as competitive grants from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Watch Episode 126 of NJAAW’s Aging Insights TV to learn more about NJ’s vast array of theatre, visual art, dance, music, museums and heritage sites, and how the NJ Arts and Culture Recovery Fund has helped them not only survive the pandemic but adapt in new and creative ways that accommodate older adults.

I’m proud of you, New Jersey!

As we wind up 2021, I just want to take a moment to say I’m proud of you, New Jersey! Now, with all the jokes made about the great Garden State, you might not be used to the compliment, but here is why I am proud of our older residents, in particular.

New Jersey was hit hard early in the pandemic and suffered tremendous loss of life.

When we started 2021, we were on the edge of our seats waiting for the COVID vaccine and a return to normalcy. It was a frantic rollout but once the supply caught up with demand, the older residents in New Jersey led the way in getting vaccinated.

December 15 is the anniversary of the first COVID-19 vaccinations being administered in the state of New Jersey. According to multiple reports, Garden State residents age 65 and over are among the highest vaccinated group in the country. New Jersey is leading the nation in fighting COVID.

According to multiple reports, Garden State residents age 65 and over are among the highest vaccinated group in the country. New Jersey is leading the nation in fighting COVID.

Now, I am not talking about politics or the misinformation that is affecting personal decisions on getting vaccinated. I am talking about the facts: Our fellow New Jerseyans over the age of 65 remember growing up in a time before vaccines. They can remember when polio, measles and other contagious diseases would shut down schools and swimming pools, and put communities on edge. They had lived through this before.

We hear the term “unprecedented” used in discussions about COVID, the vaccines and mandates. Yes – this is unprecedented; the last time we saw a health crisis of this magnitude, a true pandemic, was over 100 years ago.

Living through the flu epidemic of 1918

There are a handful of people who lived through the influenza epidemic of 1918, which spread worldwide before we had airplanes, cars and the social interactions we were so accustomed to until COVID arrived.  Many of the medical advances we take for granted were not developed – vaccines were in their infancy and penicillin was still 10 years away.

One of my favorite books is Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It, written by Gina Kolata and published in 1999. I was deep in my graduate work in public health then and found the book to be a real thriller. (I still do, but realize not everyone shares my interest in contagious things.)

No corner of the globe was left unaffected and the similarities of the 1918 pandemic and COVID-19 are surprising, considering the century of medical progress that has passed in between.

A few years ago, I made a documentary with SOMA (South Orange Maplewood) Two Towns for All Ages, in which we asked older residents about their memories of growing up before vaccines. Stories included children being sent away to family members in the countryside for the summer, to avoid polio. One woman recalled a relative who returned home from World War II a hero, only to succumb to polio a few weeks thereafter. Another witnessed diseases first-hand as a young nurse. Their honest recollections come to my mind every time I hear updates on vaccination rates.

We have come a long way and I am truly proud that people who can remember the time without vaccines took the lead in getting them to not only protect themselves but also others.

Vaccination rates for people 65+: nationwide vs. NJ

As of this writing, the national vaccination rate among adults age 65+ is 90+% ; in NJ it is over 98% with some communities reporting all residents over age 65 are vaccinated. 

In addition, vaccination rates for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) NJ residents are above the national average, elevating protection in communities that have been hit hardest by this virus. (Source: NJ Department of Health, USAfacts.org and CDC.gov)  

So, well done NJ! Once again, our older neighbors have proven that they are leaders and have so much to teach the rest of us.

I thank all of the people who drew on their life experiences and memories in making their health care decision to get the COVD vaccine. May we all look to your example.

To see the SOMA Two Towns for All Ages documentary “A Time Before Vaccines,” click here. This oral history shares the personal memories of SOMA residents growing up in a time before vaccines, and how now preventable diseases like polio, diphtheria and measles affected their lives.