Sunday, May 19, 2019

Interview with the Grafton County Senior Citizens Council on its Vitality Arts Program

Good morning
"And the beat goes on.................."

Note:  This is the second installment in a series of interviews of Aroha Philanthropies Creative Aging [Vitality Arts] grantees that seeks to capture insights into launching and managing an arts based creative aging program for seniors.  The series highlights how different organizations organized, funded, marketed, evaluated and managed similar broad programs in an effort to provide background and information to arts organizations leading to the launch of their own programs targeting seniors.  This one is an excellent insight into how a Senior Center can work as a partnership with an arts organization.  And while it chronicles and details a program in northern New Hampshire, the experience and lessons learned ought to be readily applicable to a wide variety of diverse constituencies and locations.  Senior Centers are, IMHO, particularly ripe for partnerships with arts organizations, and bring a lot to the table in terms of community engagement, audience and support development and funding leverage collaboration. Highly recommended advice and insights.  More interviews in the series to follow in the coming weeks.

Background Thumbnail:
The Grafton County Senior Citizens Council (GCSCC) has served older adults and adults with disabilities for more than 45 years and now includes senior centers and programs throughout a large region of north central and northwestern New Hampshire. GCSCC, supported by a combination of public and private partners, provides a range of life sustaining and life enhancing community services for more than 8,000 clients a year.

The council seeks “to develop, strengthen and provide programs and services which support the health, dignity and independence” of older adults and adults with disabilities, including daily home delivered meals,

Among the services provided by the Council each weekday are:

  • Home delivered meals - 141,488 home delivered meals to 853 adults last year
  • Congregate meals, providing a nutritious meal plus a chance for participants to visit with friends and engage in other senior center activities. Last year, GCSCC centers served 71,025 meals to 3,433 diners from every community in Grafton County.
  • Transportation, provided by 11 lift-equipped buses for older adults and adults with disabilities who need a ride to medical appointments, shopping, the senior center, or other destinations. Volunteer drivers are also available to provide rides, especially for medical transportation. Last year, the Council provided 37,898 rides to 877 passengers.
  • Outreach and social services, helping those whose need for income or services compromises their ability to live independently. GCSCC outreach workers help clients obtain services and benefits.  Last year, ServiceLink and GCSCC outreach workers provided support for 3,640 clients on 13,910 occasions (an average of one-half hour each).
  • Activities and programs, ranging from art and exercise classes to blood pressure clinics and computer instruction. Each center offers recreational, educational and health-related programs. Many programs are held mid-day so that participants can enjoy a program as well as the congregate meal. Last year, 2,685 individuals participated in 47,159 GCSCC activities.
  • Volunteer opportunities/  Last year, 897 enrolled volunteers, contributing 76,264 hours, came from every corner of the region to assist GCSCC and its programs.
  • Chore Corps, assisting with chores, repairs and safety modifications in and around clients’ homes. 
  • Telephone reassurance, providing a daily morning phone call to elderly individuals who are homebound, living alone and at risk for falls, accidents or sudden illness.

Vitality Arts Project Description:

Experience/Arts is designed for adults aged 55 and older. In 2017 and 2018, the instructional arts workshop series, led by professional teaching artists, enrolled older adults aged 55 to 90. Most participants were under age 74—a group that GCSCC has been eager to attract. The diverse, donation-only classes provided through this initiative have offered substantive and engaging arts education to individuals, many of whom have had few options for this sort of opportunity because of limited income, limited transportation, or the feeling that cultural spaces are “not for them.” Twelve of the 17 courses have taken place within GCSCC senior centers in comfortable and welcoming spaces, often with refreshments, always with a senior center meal available just before or after the class. The other five courses took place at community arts facilities close to the local senior center. Most participants are from rural and small-town communities across northern New Hampshire.


Barry:  What made you want to pursue a vitality arts program for seniors?  Had the center had previous experience with crafting programs specifically designed to focus on arts, and appeal to seniors?

GCSCC:  Northern New England proportionately has the largest and most rapidly growing older adult population in the country, Grafton County.  NH’s population over age 60 is approaching (and in some communities, exceeding) 30% of its total population. With this growth, GCSCC’s senior centers have become de facto community centers, with great potential to offer programs well beyond senior meals, senior transportation, and counseling—although those are the basic services we offer under contract with the state Department of Health and Human Services. We and our communities have invested substantially in the buildings we own and occupy. Our leadership believes it is essential that we fully utilize them to offer a wide range of services and programs to meet the changing needs of our target population. In fact, that is the first goal in our strategic plan, adopted by the Board of Directors in summer 2017. For years, we had wanted to offer substantive, skill-building arts programs along with other continuing education and health and wellness opportunities. The Aroha Philanthropies’ announcement of its Seeding Vitality Arts initiative seemed tailor-made for us. We had previously partnered with the AVA Gallery in Lebanon, NH to cosponsor a low-cost ($5 per session) open studio class for older adults. This class grew to the point (up to 45 attendees per week) where AVA needed to offer morning and afternoon sessions to accommodate interested participants. Robust support from the Couch Family Foundation now enables AVA to offer the class for free.

Barry:  Your project encompassed a series of arts workshops.  Can you elaborate please.

GCSCC: We serve a large, rural area encompassing 40 municipalities. Annually, our agency serves more than 8,000 individuals from every single community in the region, including those towns with fewer than 500 residents. Although most of our clients are white women over age 75 living on low to moderate incomes, our participants are diverse in their interests, perspectives, and backgrounds. We wanted to be sure that our Experience/Arts offerings also were diverse. We surveyed potential participants through the senior centers, but also on-line, through social media, and via our partner, the Arts Alliance of Northern New Hampshire (AANNH), to determine their top-rated interests. We also traveled around the region, making presentations about the program and gauging interests of older adults in our communities. Our choices of instructors and specific art forms were made with intentionality so that we could ensure that the courses led to socialization, skill-building, and individual artistic expression. The artist-instructors were approved and course format and curricula were developed in coordination with Lifetime Arts, Aroha Philanthropies’ chief partner in crafting the Seeding Vitality Arts program.

Barry:  When you conceived the project, what obstacles and barriers did you identify, and was the reality of designing, then implementing, the project pretty much as expected, or were there elements that surprised you?

GCSCC:  The Executive Directors of GCSCC and AANNH had worked together previously, but sporadically, to plan and execute arts programs at GCSCC senior centers. Securing financial support for visiting artists was a typical issue, as was encouraging senior center staff to understand that arts programming (and other continuing education efforts) was central to the organization’s mission and met participants’ interests. Although meals, rides, and counseling receive regular operational support from public sources, the senior centers’ overall programs and operations, including staffing for activities and facilities management, are not guaranteed support, salaries are low, and staff qualifications can vary considerably. We knew that our first job would be to encourage local staff buy-in to the program, especially with the continuous multiple and pressing demands that the senior center staff must address. At two of the four locations, we had full and enthusiastic staff support; in a third, we had fairly good support; in a fourth, staff never understood that this project was “theirs.” When we held courses at local arts organizations, rather than at the senior center, it was even a harder sell to encourage local GCSCC staff to take ownership of the project.

One obstacle we did not anticipate was the difficulty in documenting the courses and culminating events, especially via videotape. It took us several tries to find sensitive and capable videographers, and they had to travel up to two and a half hours from their home base to reach the locations. In such a rural area, we found that our choices were quite limited.

We knew that older adults in our communities would be excited about Experience/Arts, but we did not realize that courses would fill up so quickly with waiting lists established within days of course announcements. There was some frustration among would-be participants who had to be wait-listed. We learned fairly quickly that because of the nature of the population, there would be drop-outs during the eight week courses. In some cases, participants became ill or incapacitated or they were pressed into service as caregivers for family members. Inclement weather during early spring and late fall led to some drop-off in attendance. It could be difficult for potential participants to commit to eight weeks of regular attendance. These realities frustrated us, since we knew most courses had had waiting lists of others who would have loved to be in the class.

Barry:  The Aroha projects mandated inclusion of teaching artists to conduct the training for the senior participants.  How did you go about recruiting those teaching artists?  Was that easy, or more difficult than you imagined?  What was involved in their training and involvement that you didn’t anticipate at the outset?  Were there benefits to the teaching artists involvement that came as a bonus?

GCSCC:  It was essential for GCSCC to work in partnership with AANNH. The AANNH Executive Director had extensive depth and breadth of experience in our region’s arts community; she knew artist-instructors across arts disciplines. She also had a great sense for which artist-instructors would have an affinity for working with older adults, and she took the lead as “program manager” for all teacher recruiting, curriculum development, and training. We heard later that some artist-instructors were a little overwhelmed by the requirements and ended up being more didactic than they would have been in a less formal program. Most instructors had never participated in this type of program before, so appreciated substantial guidance from AANNH. We also heard from several teachers that they were very appreciative to be paid appropriately—a rarity for some! One instructor said that it had always been his dream to teach a group of participants that was not required to pay.

Barry:  How did you deal with issues such as non-native speaker participants, diversity recruitment, disability issues, dealing with transportation issues of the senior participants etc.

GCSCC:  U.S. Census data indicate that our region is 93% white and 98% English-speaking. While we did have some minority group participation, it was quite limited, in alignment with the overall population (especially the population of older adults). Diversity, for us, meant including more men, more individuals aged 55-74, and more participants who were not living on low to moderate incomes. Each of the locations where we held courses, including the senior centers, is fully accessible and GCSCC offers accessible transportation on a donation-only basis. The agency regularly serves a large number of individuals with disabilities, and this program served a number of individuals with disabilities.

In year two of the program, we specifically offered courses that seemed to attract more men (photography, playing the ukulele). In order to reach out to the broader (more affluent) community, we advertised course availability widely including in area Listservs. We found from the beginning that this program attracted far more young retirees (aged 55-74) than any of our other programs and services.

Barry:  In creating a budget for the project, what were the major projected costs, and were there any unanticipated expenses?  Did you leverage additional funding from other sources?  What sources and how difficult was raising the additional funding?

GCSCC:  In both years, we projected that GCSCC and AANNH staffing to administer, manage and develop the program would be a major expense, as would contracting with the teaching artists and supporting the courses’ direct expenses. Space costs, food, and other logistical expenses also were substantial. We had no unanticipated expenses, but we had areas where we over-budgeted (e.g., documentation, staff travel, rental equipment). In year two, we had not anticipated that our community partners would donate their space to us (Littleton Studio School, Upper Valley Music Center, Museum of the White Mountains), so over-budgeted for space costs. The Couch Family Foundation, a long-time GCSCC supporter and supporter of the arts, provided additional grant funds ($17,000-$18,000) each year of the project and will continue to support Experience/Arts in 2019. We successfully raised additional philanthropic support for the continuation of Experience/Arts in 2019 from the Tufts Health Plan Foundation and two family foundations (Mt. Roeschmore Foundation, the Wennberg Family Fund). It would have been very difficult for the Arts Alliance of Northern New Hampshire to raise additional funding because of its designated service region, which includes the less affluent northern half of Grafton County. In part. GCSCC was successful in raising additional funding because our service region includes the relatively wealthy Upper Valley (the area surrounding Dartmouth College), where the arts flourish with a great deal of private support.

Barry:  Did you accurately identify the workload and time involved that management of the project ended up taking, and can you describe that workload and the time involved.  How did you develop your team to oversee the project?  What elements did you include?

GCSCC:  AANNH and GCSCC accurately identified the workload and time involved in managing the project, but because of funder restrictions, we both ended up “contributing” a great deal of time as in-kind contributions from our respective organizations. Each year together we spent approximately 700 hours of management time on Experience/Arts (not including on-the-ground staff time at the local level). The workload included identifying, contracting, developing curricula, planning culminating events with teaching artists; working with marketing and development staff to produce materials to publicize the programs and fund-raise; working out logistics for space, registration, amenities, supplies for all courses; attending meetings with agency leaders, statewide arts leaders, Aroha Philanthropies, other funders; staff training; managing expenses and budgets; responding to Touchstone Center re. evaluations (this was very time-consuming since it required that administrative staff enter each response separately into Survey Monkey forms on-line); reporting to Board members and Board committees throughout both years; and more. We also spent considerable time visiting courses regularly to check in with participants and instructors. AANNH’s administrative work mostly relied on the Executive Director’s time, management, and expertise. GCSCC’s administrative work started with the Executive Director but also included the business office, local program directors (who managed activities staff and logistics), and marketing and development contractors. In both cases, the organizations also involved their Boards of Directors as part of the team committed to the project.

Barry:  Did the project involve any collaborative efforts and / or partnerships with other organizations within the community, such as with universities, care facilities or otherwise?  How did those come about and how did they work?  How critical were those to the success of the project?

GCSCC:  From the very beginning (letter of intent submitted to Aroha Philanthropies in 2016), we were full partners with the Arts Alliance of Northern New Hampshire. Leaders within AANNH have a deep knowledge of the arts, artists, arts education, arts in health, especially applicable to northern New Hampshire—our region of the state. AANNH was able to develop additional collaborative relationships with arts organizations that supplied some instructors, hosted some courses, and provided venues for collaborating events. Among those collaborators were the Upper Valley Music Center, the Littleton Opera House, the Littleton Studio School, the Museum of the White Mountains, and AVA Gallery and Art Center. GCSCC operates senior centers throughout the region and hosted the majority of courses and culminating events, also providing meals and refreshments and accessible transportation. Marketing the courses and culminating events was a joint effort between GCSCC and AANNH. Collaboration was key to the program’s success.

Barry:  What kinds of marketing did you employ in recruiting senior participants and did you go outside your constituent base?

GCSCC:  We utilized local media, including listservs, and we produced posters for each course and culminating event. Posters were distributed throughout each local area to reach as broad an audience as possible. We used our own AANNH and GCSCC newsletters (including the newsletters of each senior center), the AANNH and GCSCC Facebook pages, and a website that we developed specifically for Experience/Arts.

Barry:  What were the overall pros and cons, logistically and otherwise, in designing, creating, and implementing the project?  What benefits were there to the organization - e.g., new volunteers, new support, new audience members, greater community involvement, media coverage, expanded organization image within the community etc.?

GCSCC:  GCSCC’s executive and Board leadership were enthusiastic about this opportunity because it meshed perfectly with our purpose/mission and our long-term strategic plan to build programs and services to meet the evolving needs of a diverse population of older adults in our region. Experience/Arts brought new and younger participants into our senior centers and it engaged regular participants as well—including many who had not had such an accessible opportunity to take substantive courses in the arts taught by highly respected and well-known artist-educators. Experience/Arts allowed GCSCC to build a network of new relationships with other nonprofit organizations in the community, and several of those new relationships have led to additional program opportunities. Experience/Arts also gave GCSCC a boost in our efforts to establish ongoing relationships with the Dartmouth Centers for Health and Aging and its Dartmouth-Hitchcock Aging Resource Center and with the Osher @ Dartmouth program, which now holds courses regularly at GCSCC senior centers.

The biggest hurdle was to bring along local senior center staff to a point where they understood the importance of the program and were committed to its success. Still, a few local staff do not see Experience/Arts as “theirs,” although most grew to embrace the courses, new participants, culminating events, and subject matter.

Another “con” was the amount of resources that GCSCC and AANNH needed to invest in the project to ensure its administrative and programmatic success. We—the nonprofit organizations that sponsored Experience/Arts—were probably its largest “funder.” Organizing and managing the program took a great deal of staff work, particularly by executive-level staff.

The largest benefit to GCSCC was the development of new or expanded relationships with collaborating arts organizations. We did gain new volunteers, new support, newcomers to the senior centers, substantial media coverage, and an enhanced organizational image within the community.

Barry:  What criteria did you use to determine if the project succeeded from your organization’s point of view?  How did you evaluate the project during its course and post completion?

GCSCC:  We utilized the pre- and post-evaluation forms, as well as the culminating event evaluation form, developed by Touchstone Center for Collaborative Inquiry, and we summarized the evaluations internally in addition to receiving the summaries from Touchstone. We also analyzed registration and retention trends, and we dropped into classes during each course’s eight-week period. We’ve paid close attention to the groups that have continued to get together long after their courses ended (poetry, ukulele), and we have collected anecdotal comments and many notes of thanks. GCSCC was especially interested to see that a majority of course participants was in the group aged 74 and under, a population that we have been eager to attract.

Barry:  What lessons did you learn from your experience with the project?  How will you apply what you’ve learned to the sustainability of offering new and additional creative aging projects to the senior community in the future?

GCSCC:  Our experience affirmed that there is a hunger for programs such as these—accessible, high-quality, skill-building courses that also focus on development of a supportive and collegial (social) atmosphere.

We also learned that developing this type of program is resource-intensive (time, money, overhead) and requires support at all levels of the organization, but most importantly, from the Board of Directors and executive staff team.

A most important lesson is that having a partner with expertise in the specific content of a creative aging program is critical. For Experience/Arts it was most helpful to have adequate funding to support an equitable partnership.

Barry:  Would you recommend that other senior center organizations consider creating and launching their own creative aging vitality arts programs?  What are the major considerations organizations ought to consider before embarking on the launch of their own programs?  What are the specific considerations in your experience that senior centers ought to consider in planning a creative aging vitality program?

GCSCC:  I would recommend that other senior center organizations create and launch such a program, but only with the understanding that it will be essential to work with partners with expertise in the arts and that there are significant costs (time, money, overhead) involved. So many aging services organizations, including ours, are focused on providing basic services for older adults, and particularly for low income and frail older adults. It takes tremendous extra effort and interest to do more than provide programs to meet basic needs. Geriatric research is showing that socialization, skill-building/learning, and engagement are basic, along with senior nutrition (Meals on Wheels, senior center meals), accessible transportation, and outreach and counseling to access benefits. However, public funding is far more likely to support nutrition, transportation, and counseling services for older adults than continuing education in the arts or any other arena. And public funding, even for those “basics,” supports only a fraction of the cost to provide those services.

Barry:  What advice would you give those organizations gleaned from your experience?

GCSCC:  First, take a close look at your statement of purpose or mission and strategic planning documents to see how this type of program would align with your mission and articulated plans. Second, ensure that your Board of Directors and executive leadership are fully supportive of broadening your program in this way.

Make sure that your vitality arts program is not competing with similar programs in the community, but instead, augmenting them and broadening access to the arts. Keep in mind that developing such a program will be resource-intensive, requiring adequate administrative and program staff as well as sufficient funds to support collaborative partners and artist-educators. In our case, we also wanted to keep the courses free so that they were as accessible as possible to a low and moderate income population.

Barry:  Do you intend to continue to offer these kinds of program to your senior community?  Why or why not?

GCSCC:  We do intend to continue to offer the Experience/Arts program, and we have raised philanthropic support from foundations and individual donors to do so. We have seen the high level of interest in the program, and we know that in more than a few cases, the program has been transformative for participants. Our agency sees our senior centers as community centers—particularly in a region which has one of the oldest populations in the country. We want to make sure that our centers are far more than “meal sites,” offering vital and engaging opportunities for a population with diverse interests and abilities.

Participant Observations:

Eunie Guyre
I am a divorced, 75 year- old retired resident of Lebanon, NH, having moved here 5 years ago to be closer to my daughter. My formal working life has included secretarial/data entry/proofreading, Certified Nursing Assistant, and retail associate. I have self published two memoirs since 2011, and am currently working on another book. Writing poetry is another passion, as is reading and acrylic painting. I am an avid listener of NH Public Radio and keep current and active in politics. Facebook keeps me connected to family and friends, and “live” people watching is my favorite activity! Adult coloring books and online jigsaw puzzles entertain me when I am by myself. I still love dancing, albeit by myself, in my kitchen! My cat no longer leaves the room when I sing!

Why did you decide to participate in the creative aging vitality arts program?  Had you participated in any arts program like this before?

"(1) I missed my writers group when I moved here from Derry, so when the opportunity for a poetry class presented itself here in Lebanon, I was READY! It was also a wonderful opportunity to make new friends with similar interests. Seven of us continue to meet twice a month since the class ended, and we have improved our skills.  We feel a strong bond with one another and have named our group the “Fourth Friday Poets”. (2) I was thrilled to participate in the Ukulele Class as well. Learning to play an instrument has been on my bucket list for a while. What fun we had! Our brains were sharpened while we re-learned to read music again, too!"

In your own words, please Rate and Review your involvement in the project.  Did it meet - or exceed - your expectations?  What were the benefits of participation?  Were those benefits expected, or a surprise to you?  Were there any negatives to participating?

"A huge plus with these programs is they take place during daylight hours. My limited vision prevents me from driving after dark.
I enthusiastically attended all of the poetry and ukulele classes. Hand surgery slowed me down for a couple of weeks in playing ukulele, but I sat in and participated as best I could. Something that surprised me was feeling comfortable in both classes. I thought I would be intimidated. Benefits? Pure enjoyment of the people I met and how interesting the learning process is now compared to years ago when I was in school. Another surprise was being in the company of other seniors who had stiff fingers from arthritis or visual limitations, and the “tips” and encouragement we shared with one another. Our teachers were fabulous!"

Will you continue to pursue the art form that you learned in the program?
"Absolutely! I must write at least two poems to share each time our group meets, two Fridays a month!  I’m not sure how well I will play ukulele, but I strum it for pure pleasure & my cat no longer leaves the room when I play." 

As a result of the program, have you decided to become involved with the sponsoring organization in other ways - say as a volunteer, or audience member, or financial supporter or?

"I will be happy to volunteer if a need arises."

What advice can you give to the sponsoring organization to make the program better?

"Perhaps offering a list of suggested programs of possible interest. Continuing to make surveys available for ideas from seniors".

What advice would you give to other people who might be thinking of participating in this kind of program?

Go for it! Being a late bloomer is fun!

Thank you to Roberta Benner, the Grafton County Senior Citizens Council and to Eunie Guyre for their participation.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit