These findings, published in 2006, laid the groundwork for the nascent field. Soon after, Maura O’Malley, a caregiver with a background in arts education, was asked to join a committee considering how creative aging might be implemented in New York’s Westchester County. While there, O’Malley reconnected with a previous acquaintance, Ed Friedman, then-deputy director of the Bronx Council on the Arts. Together, they identified a major issue: “There was essentially no infrastructure for developing and delivering arts programming for older adults,” explained O’Malley. It was difficult to find trained teaching artists, and even existing programs displayed ageism by assuming “that older adults are not creative or learners,” she noted.
So the pair founded Lifetime Arts in 2008, with O’Malley serving as CEO and Friedman as executive director. Today, they provide practical training and support that has allowed a wide range of community organizations to build up their own independent creative aging programs. But in their early years, they worked primarily with libraries, piggybacking off a system that already offered free resources to local communities. Most library programming for older adults at that time focused on topics like navigating credit cards or understanding Medicaid, said O’Malley—“all very important end-of-life issues,” she acknowledged. “But there was very little, if any, programming around learning or creativity or engagement, aside from the sort of one-shot deal, passive entertainment. You know, your macaroni-on-cardboard kind of stuff.”
Lifetime Arts also began to train teaching artists to work specifically with older adults. “The majority of teaching artists across the country are working in the K-12 arena, and have been for the past 40 years,” O’Malley said. (Singh, a longtime teaching artist, said he works primarily with children through Agnes Gund’s Studio in a School program.)
In fact, O’Malley points to children’s programming in libraries as a prototype for the creative aging movement. “Thirty to forty years ago, librarians weren’t particularly interested in having kids running around libraries,” she said. “And now, every library in the United States has storytime many times a week, and there is an enormous amount of professional development and program funding and advocacy around early literacy and public libraries.”
The Brooklyn Public Library’s creative aging program—of which Singh’s watercolor class was part—came about through a collaboration with Lifetime Arts that began in 2011. The program is now independently funded, making it “a kind of a model exemplar of the work that we want people to be able to do,” said O’Malley.