Senior Communities Win Resident Buy-In Through the Arts

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Thursday, April 24, 2014 3:13 pm EDT

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Senior Housing News

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Some senior living providers are generating community buzz—and simultaneously engaging residents—by carving out a niche in the arts.

Meta Housing Corporation’s developments include three senior arts colonies along with a focus on arts programming throughout its senior housing portfolio, while a Sunrise Senior Living community recently kicked off its first-ever playwriting residency through a partnership with a local theatre group.

At Sunrise of Westfield in New Jersey, it all started a couple years ago with resident Bozidar Djordjevic, who would put on puppet shows for other residents, leading to the creation of a drama club last September. 

“We got some props to get the feel of theater and went from there,” says Christine Harris, the activities and volunteer coordinator at Sunrise of Westfield. “I wanted to explore something different, and a lot of residents want to do things that are interesting to them, whatever brings excitement, laughter, and fun.”

A few months ago, Harris mentioned the drama club during a conversation with staff from Premiere Stages, a professional theatre company in residence at nearby Kean University, planting the seed for a partnership. 

The playwriting residency at Sunrise of Westfield marks the first one Kean University has done with a senior living community. John Wooten, producing artistic director at Premiere Stages, and Heather Kelley, audience services coordinator, are working with the drama club members to create plays based on past experiences.

“What they want to do is take the lives of the residents and make them into plays,” says Harris. “Then, they’ll turn the playwriting into an actual production [performed by Premiere Stages actors].”

One resident is writing about how she met her husband when she was younger, while another’s play is based on her experiences as a flight nurse. The playwriting partnership is “definitely bringing a little more buzz” in the community about the drama club, Harris adds, which currently has around 8-10 regular attendees.

“The aim of the residencies is to provide creative engagement and fulfillment to seniors while honoring and celebrating their legacies,” said Wooten.  “I am very excited that the showcase of scenes will be presented as part of [Sunrise of Westfield's upcoming] ‘Family Night’ and hope these plays will be passed down from generation to generation as part of each family’s unique history.”   

For Sunrise of Westfield, the hope is that the playwriting workshop will raise residents’ awareness of and appreciation for theatre, the community says, an objective shared by Los Angeles-based Meta Housing Corporation. The affordable housing developer has taken the playwriting residency concept a step further with senior communities that have a built-in arts emphasis, including senior arts colonies in North Hollywood, Burbank, and Long Beach, California.

Meta’s NoHo Senior Arts Colony includes visual arts and film editing studios and educational arts classes that are free to residents and is also home to the Road Theatre Company.

John Huskey, CEO of Meta Housing, says it all began with his theory of trying to create a senior living community better than its competition. He found that communities where residents were engaged and utilizing the “great room” typically had a better overall vibe. 

“I realized that what went on in that great room was very significant,” Huskey says of his early qualitative research. “It had a vibrant feeling.” 

Huskey eventually teamed up with Tim Carpenter, a former medical marketer who’s now the founder and executive director of EngAGE, a non-profit organization that partners with Meta Housing to provide arts and wellness programming. 

Carpenter’s goal was to get higher engagement from community residents, and for one of his first assignments—filling up a lagging rehabbed community—he started a writing class. Soon enough, assignments in the class were generating a buzz that pervaded the community. 

“They had a sense of fullness. As the word got out, there was a visible, noticeable difference in behavior of these people, in their energy and happiness levels,” Huskey says. 

That class became the catalyst for a larger, year-long study conducted by researchers from the University of Southern California to gather information on the impact of arts offerings on resident happiness and engagement. Meta Housing Corporation used feedback from the research as it continued to build and buy communities and implement programming that capture residents’ interest. 

“By the time the study ended, we knew exactly what worked and why,” Huskey says. “The ‘why’ is resident engagement. We discovered that having a variety of activities was important so that people could feel self-improvement, and that led us to the arts.” 

While the arts focus hasn’t necessarily helped Meta Housing’s arts colonies lease up more quickly than others, according to Huskey, two are almost full—Burbank at 95% occupancy with Long Beach 96% occupied—while the newer NoHo Colony is still in fill-up at about 80% leased. The developer’s goal is to build around six new senior projects a year, all of which have some kind of “expressive creativity offering.”

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