Getting old in America is rough. Health care expenses, needing extra attention from one’s family, and giving up the comforts of home to move into senior housing amount to an experience that can be degrading. But while society may treat the elderly as a burden, Tim Carpenter, director of Southern California arts non-profit EngAGE, sees an opportunity to create a period of life that’s full of self-discovery, joy, and community.
His 13-year-old nonprofit brings arts and wellness programs to the apartment buildings of 6,000 low- and moderate-income adults over age 55 at 30 sites around the Los Angeles area. In Burbank, EngAGE was instrumental in the development of The Burbank Senior Artists Colony–a 141-unit apartment complex for the elderly built around the arts, including a theater group, film company, and music program. In the next year, EngAGE will help open two more arts colonies in North Hollywood and Long Beach.
Senior housing facilities pay EngAGE a fee to offer programming onsite. The rest of their operating budget is met through fundraising, grants, and corporate sponsorships.
Carpenter’s passion for working with the elderly traces back to his upbringing in a large Irish-Catholic family, where storytelling was paramount. “I just very early on thought that older people told better stories than younger people did,” he says, “And I ended up at that end of the dinner table.”
But his experience working in health care for older adults during his 20s showed him that society doesn’t necessarily have the same level of respect for older people’s creativity. Residences for seniors were “depressing,” a place to “warehouse” people no longer considered valuable, Carpenter explains. “These are people who have been told by society for a long time that they don’t matter, that they’re invisible.”
After connecting with John Huskey, president of affordable housing development company Meta Housing Corporation in Los Angeles, Carpenter decided to found a nonprofit to bring meaningful experiences to apartment buildings for seniors.
“Usually in senior housing the only thing that people have in common is that they’re old, which is not a very interesting commonality. So what we’re trying to do is try to replace that with something cooler,” Carpenter says. As people live longer, “old age” may stretch into a 30- or 40-year chunk of time. “Looking out a window at a golf course, or riding around with your friends and playing bingo–I don’t want to sign up for a life like that,” says Carpenter.
His 65-person team is dedicated to helping seniors achieve a different sort of life–one that’s more like a college student’s with easy access to eye-opening arts courses on a rigorous, semester schedule culminating in group projects, along with workshops to encourage healthier lifestyles, like yoga and cooking class.
Carpenter says that scientific research on aging supports EngAGE’s work. “We had a study done by the USC School of Gerontology that proved that people who are involved in our program are healthier than the ones that aren’t.” He cites another study by George Washington University researchers that showed older people involved in arts programs needing less health care and medication.
Less quantifiable mental health benefits are felt by the families of the seniors participating in EngAGE programming. Carpenter says that EngAGE “relieves a lot of the pressure” for the children of participants, who find themselves taking care of aging parents at the same time that they’re raising kids. The one complaint is, “We never see grandma any more because she’s so busy.”