Seniors in Artworks dance, sing, learn to play guitar

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At age 74, Olivia Aull of San Francisco is taking guitar lessons for the first time. And art lessons. And acting lessons.

She doesn't let it daunt her that she had a stroke nine years ago or that she walks with a cane. She doesn't let her age stop her from reading poetry by African American writer Langston Hughes in front of large audiences. Nor does she allow her slight physical limitations stop her from strumming her favorite songs on her guitar.

"I thank God for blessing me with my age," Aull says, "and I'm always ready to learn, to grow."

Aull, in fact, has decided that older age is exactly the time to begin doing some of the things she never had time to do when she was younger.

Thanks to Artworks — one of 15 programs run by San Francisco's Mount Zion Institute on Aging — Aull and about 500 seniors like her in San Francisco and Marin get to do just such things: act, paint, sing, dance and even write their own plays.

Since Artworks came into being 15 years ago at Mount Zion Hospital, elders who are frail, disabled or homebound and those who participate in adult day health centers have been eager and willing students, according to artistic and administrative director Jeff Chapline.

Artworks, run out of Mount Zion under the auspices of UCSF/Mount Zion Center on Aging, is not specifically a Jewish program, and classes are open to the public. But the program came out of Jewish philanthropy, which is still very strong today, Chapline says.

Artworks, he stresses, is not an "arts and crafts" program aimed at keeping seniors busy. It is a serious, in-depth art program funded by the California Arts Council and taught by professionals in various art fields.

The program, Chapline says, is not designed as art therapy. The goal is simply to teach students to sing, dance, paint and act — just as art programs geared to a younger age group would. "But of course, the indirect rewards of art are always therapeutic."

Currently six artists-in-residence are teaching two groups of seniors: those who are homebound and those in adult day centers. For instance, Helen Dannenberg of San Francisco is a dancer and choreographer who lends her experience to her senior students at St. Mary's Hospital Adult Day Health Center once a week for six months.

She teaches stroke patients and others that dance is not just hopping, twirling and leaping across a stage. In fact, her students learn that dance for them might be moving their hands in rhythmical patterns to old songs, like "To Each His Own," or sitting in wheelchairs and moving whatever body parts they can to a favorite song.

"What people need to realize is that art can be performed at any age and that someone's concept of art must be broadened to accept that any type of movement can be interpreted as dance,'' says Dannenberg.

"Just because people might have physical limitations doesn't mean they can't do things. In fact, I find older people more appreciative of what they can [physically] do and I find they strive to do more and more."

Aull says she appreciates what God has given her. So she writes "inspirational poetry" — something she never tried before.

Without the stroke, "I never would have started taking all these lessons; I never would have started writing or playing the guitar."

Theater artist Tessa Koning-Martinez says she finds seniors like Aull inspiring.

"Sure, seniors are fearful of learning just like children are. But I find that seniors are so much more encouraging to each other," she says. "If someone begins to say `I can't do it,' his or her colleagues will jump right in and urge them on."

Koning-Martinez says the seniors she works with are eager to learn. "At their age, getting to be students again is almost like a miracle."

Of course, Artworks is not without problems. The biggest difficulty is funding. The program used to be free for seniors, but because of cash crunches, Artworks has begun charging a fee for services over the last four years, Chapline says.

Other funding comes from state agencies, foundations, private grants and donations — all sources that Chapline says are crucial to keep his program going, especially since he's planning on starting a cross-generational program, enabling the young and the old to work together.