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By Cynthia Bombach

It’s not quite as simple as “build it and they will come,” but in a growing number of senior living communities, art studios are a magnet for residents. Well-designed studios, paired with appropriate programming, can attract everyone from seasoned artists to people who have never picked up a paintbrush. Pursuing artistic activities is beneficial for older adults. A Mayo Clinic study found that people with long-term involvement in creative arts such as painting, sculpture, and music had significantly less cognitive impairment in their 80s than those with little or no involvement. The longer they participated, the sharper their minds were.

Another study by George Washington University and the NEA showed that weekly participation in arts activities had positive effects on the mental and physical health of people in their 60s and older. Results of the two-year study indicated that arts participants had fewer doctor visits, a lower incidence of falls, used less medication than non-participants, and had higher morale.

With this knowledge in mind, providers are including dedicated art studios in new buildings or improving existing spaces to make them more inviting for residents. It’s part of a growing movement away from the conventional multipurpose room and toward professional-quality studios that any artist would love.

Brightview Senior Living now includes art studios in all its new communities. “Art is a big part of healthy living for seniors,” says Dori Ray, corporate director of vibrant living.

“It incorporates mindfulness, fine motor skills, and hand-eye coordination. It’s also an opportunity for creative expression, learning new cultures, and socialization.”

Designed to inspire

Long vaulted hallway with paintings hung on both walls.
The Meadow at Masonic Homes in Louisville, Ky., displays the wealth of art produced at the community.

In some cases, the impetus for creative spaces comes from the residents themselves. When architect John Cronin was designing the Meadow independent living building on the Masonic Homes campus in Louisville, Ky., he met a group of residents who asked him to provide an art room in the new structure.

Their existing multipurpose workspace was shared by other hobby groups and was located in a busy common area. The artists requested an arts-only space away from the hustle and bustle of community life. Cronin, senior design architect at AG Architecture, conferred with an artist on his design team to give them what they wanted.

The resulting studio at Meadow is a two-story space with a curved wall of north-facing windows to bring in diffuse light for painting. A windowed second-floor viewing area draws light into the adjacent corridor and allows the community to observe resident artists at work without interrupting.

In the main studio area, there’s enough space for classes of 10 to 12 students with easels to fit in comfortably. Locked cabinets provide a secure place for residents to store their personal supplies.

Another part of the studio contains pottery wheels and worktables. The kiln is housed in a separate space.

The studio is located near the apartments at the back of the building. It can be easily accessed by residents of other buildings via an exterior door near the parking lot.

Resident response to the space, which opened in 2018, has exceeded everyone’s expectations. “The classes have been so well well-received that we had to bring the art instructor from part-time to full-time with us,” says J Scott Judy, CEO of Masonic Homes Kentucky. Even with a full schedule, most classes fill up quickly.

Resident input and engagement

While a great space is important, quality programming is key to success.

Cronin’s experience with Meadow emphasizes the value of meeting resident needs when designing art spaces. He suggests surveying current and prospective residents to find out what kinds of creative activities they’d like to pursue, then planning spaces and programming to meet those needs.

“Keep an ear on the types of people that are moving in,” he says. “The Baby Boomers are moving in, and they’ve got sets of skills that the previous generations didn’t always have.”

Having a high-quality studio space can entice new residents into a community. “We’ve had people who have decided to move to Meadow for that very reason,” Judy says. “They want to continue learning, they want to continue to grow.”

Providers should ask for feedback from current residents when planning a renovation or new art room. Find out what kinds of projects they’d like to create in the new space and what classes they might want to take. Ask if they have any artistic skills or techniques they’d like to teach to others.

The right leaders

To carry out the programming, communities should look for knowledgeable and personable instructors who have the ability to motivate and inspire residents without intimidating them. The instructor can be hired on as a staff member, brought in as a volunteer or contracted for a specific length of time or number of classes. Often, residents with art experience will enjoy teaching their peers.

Because offering spaces and programming that appeal to existing residents can help bring more like-minded new residents to the community, it can be worth it to renovate an existing space to meet those goals.

Cronin is currently in the planning stages of a project that may involve moving a community’s art space from an existing basement multi-purpose room to a street-front studio with large windows. In addition to giving residents a more inspiring place to work, the studio would attract positive attention from passersby as well as offering an ideal place for hosting public art exhibits.

Studios can also provide the setting for other art-related programming such as art therapy sessions, presentations by artists or art historians, and group discussions after trips to galleries and museums. When planning classes and supplemental activities, it’s important to leave enough open studio time for those who prefer to work on their own.

Trying a new pursuit

High-quality studios aren’t just for “real artists,” but for anyone who wants to express themselves through visual means.

“We purposely create art spaces where everyone can come, whether they’re a first-time painter or an accomplished sculptor,” says Sarah Laloyan, senior vice president of signature operations at Atria Senior Living.

Atria’s Crestavilla community, in Laguna Niguel, Calif., opened in 2018. It includes an “open-air” studio. The space is light and bright, with several large windows and glass doors opening onto a rooftop patio with views of the surrounding hills. The studio is outfitted with worktables, storage cabinets, and a small free-standing kiln for firing clay pieces.

Art classes in Atria communities are based on what residents would like to learn. Everyone is encouraged to take part and try new things. Many new residents are reluctant to participate at first.

“We have residents that move in and initially there’s no interest,” Laloyan says. “But as they become a part of the community, they find some type of art that really brings out a passion that they never thought was there.”

Finding their passion

Masonic CEO Judy says that one of the most satisfying outcomes of having an art studio at Meadow is seeing people with no prior art experience find a passion for creativity.

One day, he recounts, he saw a resident painting, and made a remark about the man’s obvious talent. The resident said he had no idea he could paint until he started taking classes at Meadow.

“To see the pride and sense of accomplishment that he had on his face from that, I could tell it was a life-changing experience for him,” Judy says.

Residents with no art background can benefit from sampling a variety of classes to find something they may want to pursue long-term. Their classes should be aimed at encouraging them to explore new things rather than focusing on technique.

At Brightview, beginning art students might start with learning about artists and how they work, or they might experiment with different mediums such as oils or watercolors. Having a range of choices gives them the independence to choose what’s most appealing. Advanced students are more likely to request specific classes to enhance their existing skills.

“It’s really about giving them opportunities to find what might speak to them on a deeper level,” Ray says. “I call it sparking joy. They could reignite an old passion or start a new one.”

That passion is enhanced by the social aspects of making art in a community setting. “Our art studios are really a place of socialization and connection,” Laloyan says. They’re a place for residents to engage in creativity among supportive companions.

A well-designed and thoughtfully programmed studio can impact a community in surprising ways. During pandemic lockdowns, staff at one of Brightview’s art-oriented communities devised a way to create a sense of unity while everyone was isolated in their own rooms. Each resident was given art supplies and a picture to paint or decorate. When the pictures were done, they were all joined together in a large mural.

Through this project, the community could create something together even though they were physically apart. “The art studio and their classes really did bring them together in a way that made a big difference for them,” Ray says.

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