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Creativity Matters: The Arts and Aging Toolkit
photo of one woman dancing with a saxophonist (Kairos)

7.2: Keeping on Track

Once your program is up and running, don’t rest on your laurels. In addition to the various aspects of program design that require ongoing attention, assess the progress of participants and the effectiveness of the process and revisit the initial plan for sharing the art created with the community.

This section looks at:

Assessing Progress and Process

At routine intervals, sit down with staff, teaching artists, and organizational partners (if you have them) to assess participants’ progress in achieving outcome goals and evaluate the instructional design. Committing to these meetings should be in the partnership agreement and the overall program evaluation plan. This step enables the team to address challenges and make corrections in enough time to ensure success. It can also support your ongoing marketing, fundraising, and public awareness campaigns with anecdotes and observations about how participants are benefiting.

This assessment process is often referred to as formative evaluation. Formative evaluation typically is “conducted during the development or improvement of a program or product (or person, and so on) and it is conducted, often more than once, for the in-house staff of the program with the intent to improve.” 80

There is nothing particularly complicated or intimidating about discussing your participants’ journey: where they have been, where they are today, and where they are heading. Review the original goals, objectives, activities, and instructional design, and compare each to reality. If they don’t correlate, make adjustments. It is important that all team members are present at these meetings, particularly the teaching artist who has hands-on experience with participants.

What can go wrong in a program? Some examples:

Other issues might relate to the roles and responsibilities of each partner organization or facility—for example, professional caregivers are not helping participants get to the program; the teaching artist doesn’t understand normal aging; or the activities staff schedules conflicting activities or events.

Regular meetings with the team provide a good opportunity not only to assess the progress of participants, but—in a program with organizational partners—to evaluate the operation of the partnership. Review your partnership agreement or the checklist to reinforce and clarify responsibilities. If the team understands that the team meeting is the time and place to discuss challenges, then raising awkward issues is a little easier.

It can be helpful to involve your advisory committee in program evaluation. Ask members for their insight on challenging issues. They are part of your learning community, and they serve as a sounding board for your ideas as you think through potential program changes.

Last but not least, don’t ignore the ability of cognitively fit participants to be self-reflective and solve problems. Older adults who have a lifetime of experience and are invested the program’s outcomes are a great resource. They, too, can be involved in evaluation.

Program Example: Involving Participants in Assessing Progress

Generating Community uses the last five minutes of every workshop session as a quick assessment period. The participants—young people and seniors together—share their thoughts about how the program is going, what worked that day, what needs to be clarified, and what needs improvement. In this way, the participants determine the direction of the group. This discussion session also allows the teacher and artist to evaluate the development of critical thinking and cooperative interaction among participants.81

Planning Community Sharing of the Art

As you assess the progress of participants and the effectiveness of the process, focus as well on how to share the art created with the community. This section looks at:

Making the Decision

As we explained in chapter 6, it is advisable to consider the decision to share the art in advance but not finalize it until later. About halfway through the program is the appropriate time to review the initial plan and revise it as necessary. It is important to involve staff members, partners, the teaching artist, and the participants in these discussions; however, older adults with more advanced dementia are unlikely to be able to contribute.

Cognitively fit participants may be uncomfortable with any kind of performance or celebration. While you always respect their choices, there are a number of benefits associated with sharing the art that accrue to older adults, the partners, the program, and the arts and aging field in general. Explain these reasons and encourage them to share their work.

With six months left in the program, the women in the Penn South Living History Theatre group—a program of Elders Share the Arts — realized that a presentation of some kind would give them a way to celebrate the culmination of their time together and share their pride of the group with others. The teaching artist suggested a montage format that would accommodate different artistic skills and comfort levels with performing. The Heart of the Matter: Our Lives—A Work in Progress included songs, jokes, poems, and an original work of art. The participants had created two group poems over the two years, as well as an original finale song. A third group poem was created live during the presentation. Roughly 60 people came to the event, including family members, friends, and residents and staff from Penn South.

Sitting in the wings waiting to go on, it was hard to believe that it had been only six weeks ago that our patient creative writing instructor guided us through the proper steps of penning a stage play. He would let us try anything, except quitting. “There’s Always Tomorrow” was the result, and now there were only three minutes until we went on stage to perform it. A man gently tapped his microphone three or four times, and for the first time I realized how full the theater at the Duarte Community Center had become. Our stage director was tremendously professional, her training and talent evident in every example she set forth for us. And she was very patient with her fledgling cast. The lights dimmed. We started up the three steps to the stage. The three minutes were up. Show time. From an article by Thyda, a resident of Pacific Villas in Pomona, California, written for The SAGE. Pacific Villas is a client community of EngAGE: The Art of Active Aging.

Developing Content

Content for community sharing of the art can take many forms, including:

Regardless of the form, consider incorporating gestures, movements, or songs of group members who have died as a way to keep their memories alive.

How participants shape the content and structure of the culminating event corresponds with the program’s original instructional design. One effective technique is to divide the group into several smaller groups or committees to work on sections of the final piece and then bring them back together to critique, refine, and assemble the parts into a whole.

If your program is multiyear, consider how the scope and complexity of the community sharing increases over time. The broader arc of your sessions needs to demonstrate effective instructional design, specifically setting challenges and ensuring success for older adult participants.

Communicating Context

Explain the context of community arts to participants, partners, and the public:

Planning the Event

Whether the event is a visual art exhibition, calendar, book, theater piece, or concert, it must reflect your value of respecting and honoring what participants create. This commitment plays out in the venue, the materials, and the celebratory activities.

Selecting the Venue. The venue that you select for a performance or exhibit should be appropriate to the size and experience of the group. Participants in a new program may be more comfortable in an intimate space. Those who have performed or exhibited before may prefer something larger. For performances, look at senior centers, houses of worship, schools, colleges and universities, movie theaters, and performance venues. Call performing arts groups in your community to ask where they perform. You have more options for finding appropriate space if you are creating a visual art exhibit. In addition to approaching for-profit, nonprofit, and collegiate art galleries and museums, look at banks, libraries, and community centers, long-term care facilities, senior centers, hospitals, and performing arts centers.

Particularly if the venue is not arts related, the recommendations shared in Legacy Works: Transforming Memory into Visual Art are helpful:

It’s important to understand that adequate exhibition space has certain minimal requirements: security from theft and vandalism, good light, and prepared walls. Preparing the walls means clearing off whatever may be on them and providing picture hooks or a picture rail. Attaching hooks requires that the wall be made of plaster. An excellent alternative is a rail on which picture hooks can be hung. Such a rail can be attached to the concrete-block walls common in institutions; it allows for considerable versatility. You can also hang the work with pushpins on room dividers covered with fabric or on bulletin boards.82

The best way to contact prospective venues is in person or by phone. When you stop by to check out a venue, find out who you need to talk to if you decide to move forward. Ask board members, partners, participants, family members, and friends to help secure the venue. They may know the right person who can say “yes” and perhaps donate the space or offer a discount on the rental fee.

Creating Materials. Materials refer not only to how visual art is presented, but also to printed invitations, programs, and catalogues. Ensure that all materials are as professional as possible to convey your values and respect for the participants:

Cost-effective options for obtaining high-quality presentation materials include soliciting in-kind contributions from a frame shop and a printer; buying frames and mats on sale from a crafts store; incorporating the cost of materials into fees for service; and recycling mats and frames from year to year.

Printed programs in the performing arts are important not only for the participants, but also for the audience members, particularly if they are in long-term care facilities. A program makes residents feel that they are at a real performance.

Celebrating Success. Like the venue and materials, the quality of the celebration around the community sharing of the art helps to reinforce the benefits to older adults—especially for those with dementia and those who live in a residential facility. Their celebrations are too rare. Ask for in-kind donations of good food and drink, festive decorations, and fresh flowers from local businesses. Ask a nonprofit or for-profit music school in the community if top students are willing to perform as practice, but ensure that their sound level is low to facilitate conversation.

Marketing the Event

Program staff, volunteers, or members of the partnership team, advisory committee, or board need to follow these basic marketing steps:

The best way to market your event is to enlist the help of program participants. Prepare them to spread the word through informal conversations with friends and targeted phone calls. Write out talking points and specifics—who, what, where, when, and how. Participants can also customize printed invitations with short notes. If your program involves residents of a long-term care facility, mailing an official invitation to other residents demonstrates your respect for them as individuals.

Don’t forget to offer transportation for older adults who live in the community who no longer drive. At the event, remember to acknowledge funders, community leaders, and elected officials, and give them a chance to speak briefly. This recognition is vital to public awareness efforts.

There are a great many resources on marketing. For guidance that pertains to the arts, read chapter 6 of Seasoned Theatre: A Guide to Creating and Maintaining a Senior Adult Theatre or chapter 9 of the Fundamentals of Arts Management. 84

Key Points about Keeping on Track


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Appendix 5:
Policies and Procedures Sample


Appendix 6: Teaching Artists Tools
Instructor Orientation

Program Proposal Form