Reimagining Aging

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For an entire week, the San Francisco Bay area was recently abuzz with planners and participants attending an innovative program challenging them to rethink their views on living, aging, and dying. Titled “Reimagine,” it featured a series of events drawing on the arts, spirituality, healthcare, and design intended to “break down taboos and bring diverse communities together in wonder, preparation, and remembrance.”

The ambitious extravaganza boasted impressive numbers. Throughout the week, at various venues including libraries, churches, galleries, community and senior centers, the program included a total of:

  • 175 events, with group discussions and talks by experts and by authors such as John Leland, who recently wrote the book Lessons From the Oldest Old
  • 33 performances, including one on how improv acting can help smooth the aging process by teaching people to cope with life’s uncertainties
  • 32 workshops, with an emphasis on practical topics such as estate planning
  • 25 art experiences in a variety of mediums
  • 23 reflections on topics such as dealing with grief and regret, and
  • 6 comedy shows on various aspects of aging and end of life.

Most of the events were free, or free of charge to seniors.

Living Well, Aging Well

While the focus of this Reimagine program was on the end of life, many of the presentations and activities were necessarily aimed at making the most of life’s later years, as well.

One such session, “Living Well, Aging Well,” was held at the Aquatic Park Senior Center, perched on the shore of the San Francisco Bay. Founded in 1947, it boasts the distinction of being the oldest nonprofit senior center in the nation, providing an array of services: daily lunches, social supports, exercise programs and extensive arts offerings including theater, ceramics, photography, drawing, and painting.

The center hosted hundreds of attendees who crowded into its meeting rooms and spilled into its outdoor spaces. The day’s offerings were eclectic — ranging from the practical to the therapeutic to just plain fun.

The keynote speaker was Dawn Gross, a hospice and palliative care doctor who also hosts a local radio show, “Dying to Talk.” She explained the differences between hospice and palliative care and later in the program, ran a workshop on advanced care planning.

Dale Poland, a hospice chaplain, took on the more ethereal concerns in his lecture on logotheraphy, a type of psychoanalysis that posits all humans are drawn to find a meaning in life.

Those attending were then given bag lunches and encouraged to sprawl on the center’s humble and homey chairs and couches or wander about to view the artwork adorning the walls specially created for the event. They could also don headphones while watching a film that captured several seniors’ musings on aging and living well.

Afternoon sessions included a lecture and stretching and meditation workshop led by Antonio Sausys, a psychologist and yoga therapist specializing in grief counseling.

And Sheila Malkind, executive director of the Legacy Film Festival on Aging, showed four short films to provoke thoughts and discussions on aging, grieving, and dying with dignity.

Aging Artistically

Art and creativity were featured as essential to living and aging well. The back of the Aquatic Park Senior Center opens out onto the San Francisco Bay, where artist Emily Payne spent five days creating an installation piece outdoors intended to demonstrate how creativity can help connect the living and the dead. Both the setting and timing were poignant. Payne’s piece was a large wall drawing dedicated to her father, who died when she was 10 years old. Payne says she was prompted to delve into the subject matter by the “serendipitous timing” of the Reimagine event, which coincided with the anniversary of her father’s drowning accident and his resulting death, which occurred five days later.

The healing power of creativity was also the topic de jour for artist Veronica DeJesus, who encouraged participants to create their own masterworks. De Jesus spent 12 years working on “memorial drawings” commemorating people she knew or who inspired her in some way.

There was an intergenerational element to the day, too. In one of the meeting rooms, a preteen girl instructed participants in making Origami cranes in keeping with the Japanese legend that anyone who folds 1,000 cranes  will be granted a wish by the gods. The goal was to accumulate 1,000 of the folded birds to support and sooth young people recently subjected to gun violence.

Future Reimagine Programs

Reimagine programs will launch in Cleveland, Ohio from October 8 to14 and New York City from October 28 through November 3, 2018. Those interested in collaborating or finding out about holding an event in other locales can find additional information on Reimagine’s Event Hosting page.

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