In 2014, I was a SU-CASA (formerly SPARC) Artist-in-Residence. Although I had taught the arts to young people for almost a decade at that point, this was the first time that I would be teaching older adults. I was both excited and a bit nervous.
Programs like SU-CASA are very important and can make such a great difference in the quality of life our city's elders. The majority of older adults in New York have no income beyond social security benefits and so many live at or below the poverty level. So this is a great opportunity for seasoned arts educators who would like to work with older adults and artists who are new to arts education to provide valuable service to their communities.
I was placed at Hillcrest Senior Center in Jamaica, Queens. Since I'm originally from South Jamaica, it was great to have the opportunity to do some good work in my old 'hood. At the time my grandmother was ill and the senior center was only a 15-minute walk from where she lived. So, during my residency, I was in the company of elders all of the time.
For two days a week I taught my senior students the fundamentals of drawing and painting and the class culminated in a large-scale mural on canvas. But I also learned a lot from my students as well. There were the small things that you can only learn by teaching older adults, but I also learned some amazing history and wisdom.
Hilda, my oldest student, was a 90-year old Cuban expat who witnessed when Castro came to power and talked about how he went from loved and supported to feared and distrusted. Rosa, my 60-something year-old makeshift assistant teacher and Spanish translator (all but one of my students were native Spanish speakers) always beat me to class and would give me a hard time if I was even five minutes late. Since the residency begins in the dead of winter, I was always impressed to see most of my students show up through rain, sleet, or snow. That was one of the small things that showed me how important the class was to each of my students.
In an effort to improve the quality of arts education programming for our elders, the Department of Cultural Affairs, New York City Council, and Department for the Aging has continued to support the SU-CASA residency with an award of $4500 with a 40-hour commitment. I encourage my fellow artists to use their talents and experience to bring some joy to the lives of our city's elders by applying to the SU-CASA program. APPLY HERE.
Are there any artists out there who can share their experiences working with and teaching seniors? If so please comment below!