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Creativity Matters: The Arts and Aging Toolkit
photo of two men and one woman dancing (PARADIGM)

5.5: Program Examples

Arts and aging programs are as individual as the older adult participants, reflecting their different abilities and needs, responding to partners and external events, and employing a variety of artistic disciplines. The following programs employ effective practices:

While these programs are successful, inspirational, and worthy of emulation, they are also constantly evolving in response to new research, life experiences, trial and error, and community and participant needs.

The Golden Tones

This senior adult chorus led by a professional artist is an example of a community arts organization that began as a program of a senior center initiated by the codirectors to serve the interests of attendees.


Observing that 10 older adults regularly meet to sing around the piano, the codirectors of the Wayland, Massachusetts, Senior Center, a program of the council on aging, decide to create a more formal singing group. One of the codirectors attends church with professional singer and church youth director Maddie Sifantus and asks for her help. Having an affinity for older adults from performing in nursing homes, she agrees to organize the group and recruits her mother, a concert pianist, to be the accompanist.

The singers, some of whom once appeared in amateur theater groups or plays at church, immediately express interest in performing. The rehearsal room at the senior center is also the home of the Wayland Senior Club, and the group performs for this audience twice in their first season. Thanks to these two performances and word of mouth, the number of chorus members doubles to 21 by the spring picnic, one of several social events during the year. As they perform more frequently in the community, their visibility and reputation attract new members. Older adults also join after participating in open rehearsals at other senior centers. Sifantus also contacts church choir directors in nearby communities, who then recommend the Golden Tones to older members who may benefit from a slower pace. No auditions are required.

Now, after 20 years, the Golden Tones has grown to 60 voices, and the more experienced singing group, the Golden Nuggets, has 20 members. Students from nursery school through college participate in intergenerational events with the Golden Tones, including rehearsing and performing with the chorus.

Through a verbal agreement (a written partnership agreement is in the works), the senior center donates rehearsal and storage space and the use of the piano. After the first couple of years, the chorus forms a steering committee, in part to develop revenue sources. They start charging a small fee to perform.

Then, the senior center offers Sifantus a small stipend using federal dollars distributed by formula through the local area agency on aging. In 1996, the chorus becomes a nonprofit with the help of a pro bono lawyer. Shortly thereafter, sources Sifantus has cultivated over the years make grants and contributions to launch a capital campaign and fund an endowment that is used to pay accompanists.

In 2005, the organization hires a part-time assistant director; receives capacity-building grants from two foundations and a local bank; initiates a strategic planning process; recruits new board members; and begins to transition from a working to a policy board. The Golden Tones receives 92 percent of its $60,000-$75,000 annual budget from individual donations (singers pay $25 per year), 5 percent from performance fees, and 3 percent from small grants. Sifantus plans to diversify revenue sources. Health insurance is provided through the local chamber of commerce.


Members of the Golden Tones arrive 20 to 30 minutes early for their one-hour rehearsal held every Tuesday at 10:00 a.m. from fall to spring, less often during the summer. Some who no longer drive get a ride from those who do. After socializing and drinking coffee, the singers pick up music in large print and take their seats, with those who read music and are more able sitting next to less experienced or new singers or anyone who needs a little help.

Using a microphone, Sifantus leads the group through breathing, stretching, and vocalizing exercises, taking care not to stress the singers’ voices. Once everyone is focused, she makes housekeeping announcements. The chorus then learns new music and reviews old music—all selected in collaboration with Sifantus. For some pieces, the Golden Nuggets sing harmony while others sing melody; for others, singers are free to add their own harmonies. Periodically, Sifantus explains terms and concepts using the blackboard. As always, the rehearsal ends with joining hands and singing “Till We Meet Again.”

Sharing with the Community

Assisted living facilities, nursing homes, independent living communities, senior centers, schools, churches, and community leaders call Sifantus to request a one-hour Golden Tones performance for an average fee of $100. After a little direct marketing to ensure balance among types of facilities and perhaps to find a few family-related events with larger budgets, the schedule is set.

With 60 concerts a year in 25 towns, chorus members are always preparing for a performance. Typically, one member suggests a song to Sifantus who gets an idea for a theme, such as songs about music, dreams, or World War II, and brainstorms other relevant pieces with the chorus. Members learn the music; soloists and understudies rehearse the solos; and those who interact with the audience refine their timing, run lines, and check props.

At the facility, Sifantus reviews the performance space with the activities director and makes last-minute adjustments to chairs for the chorus, the piano, temperature, sound system, and lights. The audience arrives and picks up a program and sing-along sheets in large print that include the history of the Golden Tones and sponsor logos.

Sifantus welcomes them, introduces the theme, and serves as emcee throughout the concert. She turns around at the start of specific numbers to encourage everyone to join in. The singers’ enthusiasm is contagious. After audience and chorus members conclude by singing “Let There Be Peace on Earth” and “Till We Meet Again,” performers mingle with the audience, soliciting feedback and enjoying refreshments.


In addition to receiving informal feedback from concert audiences and chorus members throughout the year, Sifantus includes evaluative questions on the annual membership form that each singer completes. Audience, facility staff, chorus, and family members also send written testimonials. Using a raffle or other incentives, she entices the broader community to complete evaluation forms at the chorus’ biennial gala. As an organizational grantee of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, she uses the preliminary assessment and panel review processes to gain insight into the chorus’ administrative and board operations in comparison with other similarly sized nonprofits in the state.

New Horizons Music

With more than 140 band, orchestra, and choral programs in the United States, New Horizons Music is a proven example of an effective community-based performing arts program for well elders.


At an early spring retreat, the faculty and staff members of the local community music school brainstorm ideas on how best to serve all segments of the community, particularly older adults. One faculty member suggests exploring a New Horizons Music program, which is designed to contribute to the mental, physical, and social well-being of older adults and might have the added benefits of attracting new students of all ages to the school and enhancing the organization’s visibility in the community.

New Horizons Music provides entry points to group music making for adults with no musical background and for those who were involved in music during their school years and have been away from it during their working years. Unlike most community bands and orchestras, which expect members to be able to read music and play their instruments, New Horizons groups provide beginning instruction. With the support of everyone present, several staff and faculty members form a small committee to pursue this idea. Meeting later in the spring, the group creates a timeline and divides assignments to complete before the planning session with community members in early June.

Guests at the planning session and lunch include the owner of the neighborhood music store; the director of the nearby senior center; and the older adult who chairs the activities committee at the continuing-care retirement community several miles from the music school. The faculty who will teach and conduct the music program are also at the meeting. The school’s in-house New Horizons committee has already given the planning group information about New Horizons. After discussing the timeline and proposed budget, and creating a recruitment plan to kickoff the program with at least 30 members, the participants commit to moving forward and following through on their individual responsibilities.

The coordinator, who is a staff member at the school, joins forces with the senior center director and resident of the retirement community to recruit band members to attend the informational session scheduled for the end of July. Their “It’s Never Too Late!” campaign features flyers in music stores and arts performance programs, along with announcements in the local newspaper and on several radio stations with classical music formats.

The program is budgeted to break even. Each band member will pay $150 for a semester, which includes a one-hour group lesson and one-hour rehearsal once a week. In addition, each will have to purchase music and music stands. The music store owner will rent and sell instruments to New Horizons members at a discount. The community school will provide the rehearsal room and enough space so that three or four group lessons can occur simultaneously.

Thanks to the success of the informational meeting, which included the New Horizons DVD, short introductions of the faculty who will lead and teach band members, and a lengthy question-and-answer session, 32 older adults enroll in the program. No auditions are required.


On the last Tuesday of October, members of the New Horizons band begin to arrive at the community music school around 9:30 a.m. for coffee and conversation with their friends. Most drive, and others take the public bus or carpool. After six weeks of participation, the group has settled into a routine. By 10:00 a.m., section members (strings, brass, woodwinds, percussion) are in their circle of chairs for an hour of group instruction.

In the woodwinds room, the instructor welcomes her group and asks one of the musicians to lead the warm-up, which includes stretching, singing, and playing. She asks another to select a favorite song that they have rehearsed, and the musicians play. After helping a few members with finger positions and reminding everyone about posture, she suggests that they begin rehearsal with a familiar piece to build confidence; next, they work on a new piece. The instructor leads the section in tapping the rhythm. Then she asks them to hum the tune. Finally, they get to play. After demonstrating a few phrases on her oboe, she shares some specific techniques. She asks the musicians to try playing a favorite song by ear as they practice during the week.

After a short break, all band members meet in the rehearsal room. Musicians of different abilities share music stands, and, as they get settled, the room is filled with conversation about music. The director welcomes everyone, makes announcements, and leads a quick warm-up so members are aware of the larger group and the sounds of different instruments. Similar to the group lessons, he leads them in reviewing songs that they have learned and rehearsing several new numbers that they have selected together for the recital in December.

At the end of the two hours, the coordinator pops into the rehearsal room to encourage members to join a steering committee to help shape the future of the band. Responsibilities include recommending performance venues and community events; managing growth; forming and recruiting members for other committees as needed; and assisting with evaluation. She also distributes preliminary information about the New Horizons International Music Association’s band camps next spring and summer. As the musicians pack up their instruments and music, several different groups make plans to share lunch.

Sharing with the Community

The small performance space at the community music school is filled with talking and laughter. Family members and friends of band members, other students at the school, and faculty members are excited to hear the New Horizons group play publicly for the first time. Applause greets the musicians as they take their seats and tune their instruments. Some have never performed; all are nervous.

The coordinator welcomes audience members and explains a bit about the program. She introduces the director, and the recital begins. At the end of the 40-minute program, musicians join audience members for a reception and celebration. Later in the month, the band will repeat their performance at the senior center and retirement community—two organizations represented during the initial program planning.


Since instructors do not administer formal assessments, they encourage musicians to reflect on their own progress and chart their own goals. The coordinator also distributes a three-page survey to band members toward the end of each semester (Appendix 7). The community music school’s in-house New Horizons committee and the newly formed steering committee of members each review the results. Faculty members also contribute their observations to the meeting of the in-house committee. The evaluations are favorable and informative, and the school staff and faculty members adjust plans for the upcoming semester and start talking about recruiting new members and expanding the program over the next five years.

More Examples

In addition to the Golden Tones and New Horizons Music, the following organizations serve—or have programs that serve—well elders living in the community:

Luella Hannan Memorial Foundation

The Hannan Foundation owns and operates a multiservice center infused with the arts for older adults in downtown Detroit. Foundation staff continuously assesses the interests and needs of Hannan House participants to create and grow their arts and lifelong learning programs.


After conducting a comprehensive needs assessment in 1993 of Detroit seniors living in the central city, the Luella Hannan Memorial Foundation converts its senior housing facility to an accessible and attractive nonprofit service center featuring a senior learning center, gallery, café, computer lab, and social service center. The latter includes free legal and tax advice, support groups, and access to a variety of community resources. Nonprofit tenants such as a disability resource center and the Brush Park Conservatory of Music and Fine Arts offer some services to older adults. In addition, the foundation coordinates services in several subsidized housing buildings, enabling residents to remain independent for a longer period.

To achieve its mission to enhance the quality of life for senior citizens in metropolitan Detroit, the foundation employs seven full-time and five part-time staff. The program budget is divided equally among senior learning, social services, and the gallery. Older adults pay $5 a semester to register for classes. The staff uses the reputation of Hannan House and its ability to access well and frail elders to attract community partners that donate time, services, and expertise to benefit participants throughout the facility.

From the beginning, foundation staff view Hannan House as a center for creative aging. The original activities program features arts and wellness activities, and it evolves in response to suggestions from participants into the senior learning center. Because of the facility’s visibility in the community, people volunteer to teach. The mostly retired cadre of instructors includes practicing artists. Wayne State University also provides teachers. All are paid $25 to $75 per hour based on expertise and subject.

Soon after Hannan House opens, older adults begin taking classes in visual art and creating finished works. Noticing that the facility lacks a quality display space, the staff renovates a first-floor meeting room to also serve as the gallery. Under the curatorial guidance of a practicing artist, the Ellen Kayrod Gallery exhibits six to seven juried exhibitions a year of works by Detroit-area artists age 60 and older. Some take classes at Hannan House. Works by older artists also hang in the Hannan House café.

Staff members locate adults over 60 through word of mouth, flyers in apartment buildings, ads in publications, and ongoing communication and information sharing with a network of aging services providers and partners. With an extensive invitation list, gallery openings bring first-time visitors to Hannan House who then return as participants or tell friends and family members about the array of services. The facility also offers limited transportation.


Hannan House buzzes with activity. Throughout the week, students enrolled in the senior learning center sip coffee and chat with friends as they make their way to classes on opera, visual art, yoga, literature, history, nutrition, or chair aerobics. Others come weekly for lectures on environmental justice, a meeting of the quality of life group, or a drum circle.

Today, senior program officer Pam Halladay greets participants in one class and asks for a few minutes of their time to describe a request she received from NPR’s StoryCorps to help engage Detroit seniors in telling their stories. The telling and recording of oral histories has been part of Hannan’s mission for some time and, with StoryCorps and other Detroit organizations involved, this project has the potential to evolve into a multiyear theme for a variety of activities, from visual art and writing classes to oral history and discussion groups on historic and current topics. The students are enthusiastic and brainstorm ideas for how to connect with this project.

On the way back to her office, Halladay stops in the café for a cup of coffee and sits down with several older visitors. She describes the idea for the StoryCorps project, and they, too, offer support and suggestions. Next, Halladay works with a local committee to explore this collaboration. She lines up additional partners such as the Michigan Arts League and the Detroit Public Library, and engages other Hannan staff in finding people to help implement the six-week project and become part of the interview teams for the recordings.

Sharing with the Community

In the gallery, curator Mary Herbeck hangs an exhibit designed collaboratively with her visual art class that meets down the hall. The Art of Aging Biennial is presented to raise public awareness of the relationship between creative expression and healthy aging. For later in the week, she has scheduled a two-hour afternoon opening and reception, which will include a performance by the Hannan Choir, directed by a teaching artist with the Brush Park Conservatory.

Between now and then, the Hannan Foundation board of trustees is meeting in the room, and one of the tenants is holding a volunteer training. Next, Herbeck checks on the multimedia exhibit in the café by older Detroit artist Eric Mesko that explores patriotism through old-time baseball.

Later in the day, Herbeck and Halladay look through paintings donated to Hannan House by a former resident of the building. Several works are of good quality and in excellent condition, and they find appropriate display space in one of the halls. The paintings and antique quilts complement an adjacent mural conceptualized and created by an intergenerational art class led by local teaching artist.

The invitations, produced in-house and mailed to everyone who has taken classes or obtained services at Hannan House, and distributed informally through the foundation’s many contacts in the community, have generated a crowd at the exhibit opening in the gallery. Foundation staff circulate among guests, talking about ongoing services and soliciting input on new ideas. First-time visitors at this community celebration remark on the interesting and creative activities and promise to return.


A culture of open and safe communication pervades Hannan House. In addition to asking participants and visitors to comment on and brainstorm suggestions for new programs and activities, Halladay—often in the same conversation—asks for input on current services. Foundation staff also evaluate programs with partners, administer written satisfaction surveys, and convene focus groups several times a semester on specific topics. For some in-depth surveys, they may form a small group or use an existing advisory committee to test the questions before broader distribution. The foundation also collects basic quantitative information, such as how many people participate in programs and take advantage of social services—and why.

More Examples

In addition to the Luella Hannan Memorial Foundation, the following organizations provide an array of services to older adults:

Kairos Dance Theatre

Kairos Dance Theatre, a community arts organization, created the Dancing Heart program to address the needs of frail elders and those with dementia. Led by teaching artists, the participatory, creative workshops combine opportunities for artistic expression and learning with the health-enhancing benefits of dance and music.


With a recent grant to expand the Dancing Heart program, teaching artist and artistic director Maria Genné contacts a nursing home director who expressed interest in the program many months ago after reading about it in the local newspaper. They meet at the facility. Referring to materials in an information packet, Genné cites research on the benefits of arts participation to the mental, physical, and social health of older adults, as well as to professional caregivers. She outlines the goals of Dancing Heart and shares Kairos’ philosophy.

Though the program is developed with the facility to meet its specific needs, Genné explains that she has certain requirements before moving forward:

The nursing home director agrees, and over the next month the partnership is formalized. Activities staff post information about the Dancing Heart workshops on bulletin boards and use other established communication methods. Several members of Kairos Dance Theatre do a mini-performance for residents and describe the program.


At the nursing home, residents assisted by a staff member form a circle of chairs. Genné and two other Kairos teaching artists greet each person individually and help with nametags. Genné starts the CD player or introduces the older jazz musician who will accompany the dancing, choreography, and storytelling. The music begins, and jazz, blues, Irish fiddle playing, Broadway songs, Cajun rhythms, or Andean melodies fill the room. Genné makes an arm movement and asks participants to follow. Gestures are at different heights, angles, and positions to warm up the body, focus and stimulate the brain, and create a sense of community.

Following Genné‘s cue, the group sings what has evolved over several months into their welcome song, which includes everyone’s names. Then, names are paired with gestures, rhythms, and patterns as participants take turns leading the chair dancing. Or, seizing the moment, Genné and the participants choreograph a series of movements inspired by a woman’s bright red shirt or the pouring rain. Since each group member chooses a musical theme for one workshop, they might dance to Russian folk songs or country-western.

Genné teaches the language of dance throughout, pointing out when a dancer illustrates a particular concept. The other teaching artists work one-on-one with frail elders to encourage and celebrate their movements. The foundation of the Dancing Heart program is the artistic collaboration of each participant in the dance and story-making process.

After a break for water, the Kairos teaching artists facilitate storytelling, the topic of which varies from week to week. If the older musician is accompanying the workshop, his life story catalyzes participants’ memories about music. Second- and third-graders join the group periodically, and all collaborate on creating stories or poems, cutting and pasting words from magazines and newspapers to document their work. From time to time, for groups with dementia, Genné uses an abbreviated TimeSlips process. Memories lead back to dancing: arms wave high to illustrate a poem about fishing or low to imitate waves. At the conclusion of the workshop, everyone sings the closing song, and the Kairos teaching artists thank and chat with each participant.

Sharing with the Community

Telling stories, writing poetry, or dancing in response to the rain suggest themes to Genné that she explores with participants. They consider “Storms We Have Weathered” and the musical “Oklahoma,” and they decide on the former. Agreeing to perform in the facility for an audience of other residents and family members, the dancers and the Kairos teaching artists create a 30- to 45-minute program that includes dancing and storytelling set to the music of or inspired by their life experiences. They often honor the memories of friends, relatives, and perhaps group members who have died by incorporating their stories, movement gestures, or even a favorite waltz into the piece. Fortunately, several company members of Kairos Dance Theatre are able to perform with the Dancing Heart group and join them for rehearsals. All dancers enthusiastically work to make their artistic expression strong and clear.

The performance begins with a welcome from Genné, who provides background about the program. She encourages audience members to warm up with the dancers. At planned moments during the production, one or two participants lead everyone in dance movements. After the applause ends, dancers, friends, and family mingle at a reception and enjoy punch and cookies donated by the local bakery.


As part of planning, Genné and the nursing home director and staff discuss evaluation. They use a written survey to capture attitudes toward dance and the initial expectations of participants and staff involved in the program, and they ask similar questions at the end. They also administer the Survey of Activities and Fear of Falling in the Elderly as a pre- and post-test. For groups with dementia, the partnership team might decide to track cognitive change with the Mini-Mental State Examination and interview participants and family members about expectations and attitudes.

Conversations with staff following each workshop, and longer discussions weekly or monthly, also are opportunities to evaluate impact on participants. In addition, Genné and the other teaching artists ask participants periodically to provide feedback on the activities and teaching. At the end of the program, they check in for a final time with the group, exploring together what the participants learned, what was successful and what wasn’t, and what Kairos Dance Theatre could do better. Last but not least, Genné asks each participant to write a letter of support. Those with trouble writing legibly dictate their comments to staff.

More Examples

In addition to Kairos Dance Theatre, the following organizations serve—or have programs that serve—frail elders or those with dementia:

Elders Share the Arts

Elders Share the Arts (ESTA) is a community arts organization that fosters productive aging by using teaching artists to engage older adults in sharing memories, life experiences, and wisdom through the arts. ESTA’s intergenerational programs enable older adults and K-12 students to explore their commonalities and differences through the arts, creating mutual understanding and strengthening community.


The Generating Community program of Elders Share the Arts engages elders and youth in transitional communities where they are divided not only by age, but also by ethnicity. For the past 15 years, ESTA staff have actively sought out partnerships to effect this goal. P.S. 24 and the Rosenthal Senior Center are neighbors in Flushing, New York (Queens).

After positive conversations about the program and its outcomes with the school principal and center director, ESTA executive director Susan Perlstein sends them information about her organization and requests support letters to use in fundraising (Perlstein has since founded the National Center for Creative Aging and become its director of education and training). She then tells a group of senior center attendees about the benefits of working with fifth-graders. Fifteen volunteer to participate.

With this level of interest, the senior center director donates space for the program. Perlstein and the director talk with the principal and special projects coordinator at P.S. 24, who agree that an intergenerational oral history project fits within the fifth-grade social studies curriculum. After obtaining approval from the district school board, the partnership is ready to move forward.

The partnership team—the principal, a coordinating teacher, a classroom teacher, the senior center program director, two members of the senior center staff who would function as senior representatives, the ESTA teaching artist, and the project coordinator (Perlstein)—meets to hash out funding, logistics, and communication protocols. Fundraising is shared, the school matches revenues that ESTA raised dollar for dollar. Each person signs a contract that specifies responsibilities and a timeline. The team designs the program to meet weekly for 30 weeks.


The seniors and the students meet separately with the teaching artist, Marsha Gildin, for the first five weeks to explore age stereotypes. Each session begins with breathing and moving exercises, an exchange of movements or ideas among group members, and chanting or complementary sounds. Next, Gildin leads acting exercises in which participants pretend to be someone or something different. Group members then learn how to uncover stories by asking questions, making timelines of important life events, and drawing a family tree. Each group considers what the word neighborhood means, listing likes and dislikes.

Together, the seniors and fifth-graders exchange stories, jokes, memories, and songs through exercises that Gildin facilitates; for example, she asks participants to move to a rhythm and stop when she says, “Freeze like you’re happy to see someone!” or, “Freeze like you’re in trouble!” Then, she asks them to interview each other to get at the stories “behind the freeze.” Several teams of participants improvise and act out these stories, adding “freezes” at key moments to form tableaux.

Sharing with the Community

About halfway through the 30 weeks, Gildin identifies themes from her notes and the student’s interviews with seniors to turn into a script for an intergenerational show. This year, the unifying theme is, “What makes up the flow of life in communities and neighborhoods?” At Gilden’s request, each senior and student write one or two sentences about the meaning of home. She then creates dialogue for each scene as a guide for participants’ improvisation.

Gildin divides the class into small groups of one or two seniors and five or six students, organized by personality types and traits (e.g., more reserved students with more articulate seniors). Gildin, the classroom teacher, an ESTA intern, and one or two seniors who have participated in ESTA programs each supervise a group as members develop a section of the script. Those who are not going to appear on stage learn how to run props or tech, organize costumes, or cue performers. Before the performance, the teaching artist leads several sessions with only the fifth-grade students to prepare them to cover for other actors. The entire group rehearses in the senior center and school so everyone is familiar with both stages.

Finally, it’s show time. Gildin leads audience members in a brief warm-up exercise and explains the concept and benefits of intergenerational living history theater. The performance includes presentation-style pieces, group poems, movement, and dramatic scenes. After the cast bows and enjoys applause, Gildin leads an evaluative discussion with audience members about what surprised them, what they enjoyed, and what they learned. Actors, friends, family, and members of the public celebrate participants’ accomplishments at a reception. Later, the students produce an anthology based on the show’s theme and dedicate it to the seniors.


In addition to eliciting feedback from audience members immediately after each performance, school teachers and staff intentionally observe how students interact with seniors. Students write letters and cards to their partners after the program and volunteer to help at the senior center even though they are not old enough to do so. Gildin has recorded her impressions after each session throughout the year. The senior participants complete a written survey and share their reactions in a post-performance meeting with Gildin. The partnership team assesses the program and how they functioned as a team.52

More Examples

In addition to Elders Share the Arts, the following organizations are intergenerational or have intergenerational programs:

Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, University of Southern Maine

The term lifelong learning is often used to describe the process of accomplishing personal, social, and professional development throughout the lifespan in order to enhance the quality of life of both individuals and communities. Lifelong learning also refers to educational classes, usually affiliated with a college, community college, or university, designed by or for older adults, and often taught by older adults. Generally, there are no tests, grades, or homework. The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at the University of Southern Maine in Portland is an example of a program organized and managed almost entirely by the older adult members.


In 1997, a group of older adults in Portland, Maine, explore the possibility of learning opportunities with the University of Southern Maine. The result is the Senior College. With strong leadership and active members, it attracts the attention of the Bernard Osher Foundation, which awards the program its first lifelong learning grant in 2001.

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) expands over the years in response to and with the leadership of its more than 900 members, who are age 50 and older. Member volunteers develop curriculum, teach classes, serve on committees, plan special events, market the program, staff the office, manage registration, and design extracurricular activities. The governance structure features a leadership council that operates like a nonprofit board of directors, but without financial, liability, or personnel supervision responsibilities.

The heart of OLLI is the curriculum. More than 700 students attend about 45 noncredit classes that meet for two hours a week on Friday morning and afternoon during the fall and spring semesters. Subjects are extensive—from music and art to history and science. Each winter and summer, shorter special-interest sessions introduce a variety of topics. Teachers are peers for whom a subject may be either a passion or a profession. OLLI also offers a lecture series, a special lecture each semester, a literary journal, an annual art show, the Senior Players, the Sixth-Age Puppet Opera Company, OLLI singers, a writers’ group, and local and international educational trips.

Members pay an annual fee of $25 that enables them to participate in all activities, along with a $25 to $50 fee per course for tuition, books, and materials. Scholarships are available. Other funding sources include the Osher Foundation and the state legislature.

“Learn for the love of it!” is the message that OLLI members and staff convey as they recruit new members through community newspapers and local public radio stations. Members fill brochure stands in businesses and public facilities and mail newsletters with the class schedule to an extensive mailing list. Others speak at meetings and show a video developed by a professional videographer. Word of mouth proves the best marketing tool, and the staff rewards members for recruiting new participants.


Though it is early spring in Maine, the 10 members of the curriculum committee are focused on next fall. After an update from the chair on a recent leadership council meeting, the committee reviews the preliminary topics for fall classes. For the most part, the list looks good, and the chair makes a note to follow up with two teachers whose topics appear similar. Next, she leads a discussion of three course proposals. Examining the balance of topics across all courses, the committee accepts most proposals. A new member who was recruited by the chair to fill a vacancy comments that the curriculum seems light on humanities courses, and the group brainstorms options. Remembering a popular class on Greek mythology from several years ago, the vice-chair agrees to contact that teacher.

After the OLLI leadership council approves the fall curriculum, the staff prepares the print and online course catalog. Volunteers help with logistical details of registration. Before the start of classes, the OLLI director orients faculty over lunch. She reviews administrative issues and the governance structure and reminds teachers about providing physical and programmatic accessibility; outlining course content and expectations in a syllabus; and distributing student comment forms toward the end of the semester. Even though most OLLI faculty members are experienced teachers, a professor from the university makes a presentation on adult learning.

Sharing with the Community

During the fall semester, the events committee and its subcommittees plan activities and prepare for the “ninth week” arts celebration that follows the conclusion of the eight-week semester. The Senior Players, which evolved from a play-reading class and now appear regularly in the community, have requested more time to perform, and the chorus class needs to sing in the morning instead of the afternoon. Everything is proceeding smoothly with the new writers’ group, however, and several members will present original poetry.

Turning their attention to other events, the committee receives a report on OLLI Art, the annual exhibition of members’ works. Another group reports on the One Book, One Community festival planned for February. Featuring a book group facilitated by a Maine author, the extravaganza includes a dramatic reading by the Senior Players, a chorus performance, poetry reading, and visual art exhibit all thematically linked to the book.

Elsewhere on campus, the Sixth-Age Puppet Opera Company members are sewing costumes, creating scenery, building puppets, and rehearsing for their third production, Un, Deux, Trois. The group was started by an OLLI member with a lifelong interest in puppets and inspired by a puppet production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. It performs for family members, community residents, and friends at OLLI and other venues—such as lifelong learning institutes, local libraries, and retirement communities—that invite the company to perform and publicize the production. OLLI provides space and funding with budgetary approval by the leadership council.


Since OLLI at the University of Southern Maine is member driven and peer taught, evaluation is routine, ongoing, and mostly informal. Those who design the curriculum and extracurricular activities are also participants and so are in constant communication with their classmates. While some teachers who are effective in a structured classroom setting are less effective at OLLI, most enjoy the high caliber of very engaged and active learners. In addition to informal evaluative mechanisms, the staff collects basic quantitative data.

Each teacher is encouraged to distribute one-page student comment forms that include questions about the teacher and about students’ class preparation, attendance, and expectations. A subcommittee of the curriculum committee is currently developing a way to better analyze and use the evaluation results. The curriculum committee also encourages members to share comments and initiate discussion by means of a comment box in the OLLI office.

More Examples

In addition to the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Southern Maine and in more than 100 other communities around the country, OASIS provides lifelong learning for more than 350,000 older adults at centers in 26 cities.


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