A busy mother to four children, a woman who loved to sing and garden, and a man who worked in a corporate IT department. Despite vastly different life backgrounds and experiences, these three people share one passion: art.

The trio was part of a recent art exhibit, Legacy: A Celebration of Senior Artists, presented by EngAGE and sponsored by SCAN — both community-centered organizations dedicated to helping seniors remain vital and engaged in their communities. After connecting earlier in the year at SCAN’s Aging Reimagined colloquium, we decided to collaborate on an art exhibit highlighting the works of senior artists and celebrating their lifelong creativity. With EngAGE’s Long Beach Senior Arts Colony celebrating our fifth anniversary, and SCAN seeking a capstone community event for our 40th anniversary celebrations, the timing was perfect.

Legacy featured the works of 20 established and emerging senior artists from Long Beach, CA, and surrounding communities. On display were varied and unique pieces, including paintings, sculptures, drawings and photography, reflecting an array of themes from life experiences to cultural heritage to personal narratives of aging and independence.

A community approach

EngAGE is a nonprofit devoted to creating community by providing arts, wellness, lifelong learning and intergenerational programs to seniors through affordable senior and multigenerational communities. These “colonies” are independent living apartments with arts at their core.

Research shows that older people who engage in creative activities are healthier, happier, more motivated and more like to stay mentally sharp. We also know that art increases social connection—a connection that is sorely needed. A recent SCAN survey found that 82% of seniors know at least one person who is lonely and 58% of seniors said they’d be reluctant to admit when they themselves are lonely. These feelings of isolation can have increasingly detrimental impact on physical and mental health — leading to or compounding issues like depression and anxiety, which can become progressively worse as opportunities for social interaction decrease over the years.

One of the many advantages provided by the colony model EngAGE created is that a variety of free activities such as art classes, singing, gardening, dancing and other wellness activities are brought right to residents. The residents may be having fun, but they’re also learning, with classes taught by college-level teaching artists and other professionals on a semester basis.

Lifelong learning

Many of the artists whose works were featured in the Legacy exhibit uncovered their talent for and interest in art when they first moved to the Long Beach Senior Arts Colony. Resident Ethel Gross didn’t discover a knack for art until she took a class for fun and soon fell in love with painting. Before the course, Ethel says she didn’t know she could make something pretty. Now, painting has opened up the way she looks at the world.

Another artist, Xavier Martinez, worked in the SCAN IT department for many years before becoming a Senior Advocate — a SCAN Health Plan member and part-time employee that mentors other members. While he always had a passion for painting, it wasn’t until Xavier retired that he had the time to pursue his passion and now it’s a central part of his life.

Other participants, like Slater Barron, are established artists. Slater, who is internationally known as The Lint Lady, had four teenagers in the 1970s and a great deal of laundry to do. She found dryer lint to be beautiful in its own way and started saving it without yet knowing how to use it. Before long, she was creating large installations, one of which was a series of portraits of her mother as she battled Alzheimer’s disease. Other well-known artists who participated in the exhibit were Gail Turner, who is inspired by her Native American background to paint bird songs, and Annie Strong, whose works told the story of memory loss for an older adult.

Continuing collaboration

To continue this type of activity beyond the art exhibit — and beyond just art — SCAN donated $20,000 to support ongoing social connection and nutrition for seniors living in the EngAGE Senior Arts Colonies.

Since 1977, SCAN’s mission has been to keep seniors healthy and independent. What began when a group of 12 senior activists in Long Beach demanded better access to much needed aging services has become a leading senior-focused organization. Today SCAN offers one of the nation’s largest not-for-profit Medicare Advantage plans as well as community programs that provide vitally needed services and support to seniors, disabled adults and their caregivers.

While some of SCAN’s programs are clinical, designed to address behavioral health and medication use, others focus on quality of life. Through our volunteer program, which connects friendly visitors with homebound seniors—for example, our “Guided Autobiography,” which encourages seniors to write about their lives—we understand the importance of connection, of engagement and of purpose. That’s why we are excited to partner with organizations like EngAGE, whose mission aligns with ours.

From the perspective of EngAGE, we’re impressed that SCAN is looking at the social determinants of health and believe that all health systems should take a similar, holistic approach.

Together, we look forward to our ongoing collaboration to enhance the lives of seniors, one song, one painting, one garden at a time.

Romilla Batra, M.D., is the chief medical officer at SCAN, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to keeping seniors healthy and independent. 

Tim Carpenter is the CEO and founder of EngAGE, a nonprofit that changes lives by transforming affordable senior and multigenerational apartment communities into vibrant centers of learning, wellness, and creativity.