Outside In: Building Community in Congregate Care Settings


A story aired on National Public Radio this week about college students in the Netherlands being offered housing in assisted living communities.  What a great idea!  With the right screening and support, this can be a real win:win.  How about engaging art schools to send their (musician, painter, poet, drama) students to live and even intern, from campuses to congregate care settings around the country?

Today there are too few people willing to visit people in assisted living facilities, nursing homes and other dependent care settings.  Many residents in nursing homes have no regular visitors.  People living in these settings are there because of illness or disability.  These factors limit the individual’s ability to:

  • Engage in activities they once enjoyed
  • See, hear, speak or move about
  • Take part in stimulating physical, mental, spiritual or social events
  • Find means of personal happiness and fulfilment

The staff who serve these individuals are tasked with difficult, often thankless work.  70% of people in nursing homes suffer from dementia or other mental illness, contributing to challenging behaviors and caregiver stress.

Too few young people are going into the field of geriatrics – it is no big surprise that babies and children hold much more charm for medical students than do the greying, ailing elders.  Couple this with the ‘silver tsunami’ the baby boom generation is yielding, and we could soon be faced with a of lack opportunities, lack of appropriate/desirable community living and a serious shortage of quality care for our eldest citizens.

We feel that if community members were to be more engaged in supporting the staff and residents in these elder care facilities, staff morale would improve, patient/resident quality of life would improve and patient wellness outcomes would also improve.  Research indeed bears this out.  We also feel that by contributing quality arts programming as a community engagement piece, we can apply new resources for site support and improved outcomes.

The student housing idea is one great scenario.  Another one, that we are working on currently, is to engage more students, through arts programming, in community service of their elders.  We propose to send a professionally trained artists to conduct workshops (singing, painting, dance, drama, poetry), and have groups of students assigned to attend those programs and take part in the process, alongside their elders.  TAO will partner with schools (high school and college, to start) to ensure that training and mentoring support an enlightened experience for the youngsters involved.  The anticipated outcomes:

  • More empathy for elders by young people, at an earlier age
  • Greater appreciation of the wisdom and experience of our elders
  • Greater compassion for those who are differently abled
  • Life-changing views on career choices
  • A more compassionate, appreciative young person
  • Potential relationships between young person and elder
  • Greater understanding of the human condition

These are just some of the benefits for students… they don’t even touch what seniors and staff could experience from having a regular infusion of creatively engaged young people in their midst.  In addition to colors, sounds and sights, there would be stimulation, laughter, happiness, hugs, delight, friendships – and potentially much more.

The arts are flexible.  They give us ways to express the inexpressible.  They help us leave a legacy; they inspire and create hope and even joy.  In June we will welcome Elders Share the Arts NYC, a group that uses the arts in Brooklyn to help elders build community and leave a legacy.  Link to the ESTA workshop here.  There will be much more on this subject of inter-generational community-building through the arts.