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Senior Center's Arts Program Promotes Healthy Aging Process

A senior center offers free classes to its residents and surrounding community

World renowned for birthing Beat poetry and having an active artistic community, San Francisco is now home to a novel program that aims to redefine the aging process by using art.

For the past year, residents and neighbors of the Bethany Center Senior Housing in the city’s Mission District have been served generous portions of art at Ruth’s Table, a creative special events meeting space for art, music, film, poetry and lectures spanning politics and culture.

A cornerstone of Ruth’s Table is that its programs aren’t limited to senior housing residents, but is multi-generational and open to the surrounding Mission District community.

“It makes me feel young,” says Margie Ramirez, a Bethany resident who regularly ventures to the ground floor space for films, lectures, art shows, and craft workshops. “It’s always something new and exciting.”

While art can’t turn back the clock, there’s an emerging body of research that shows that keeping the mind actively engaged with learning can be beneficial for people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

Ruth’s Table is the brainchild of Jerry Brown, director of Bethany Center, who patterned it after a similar program in Chicago. The program’s goal: “Challenge and inspire the whole person,” says Brown.

Bethany officials anticipated just a few hundred participants at the Ruth’s Table when they kicked-off the program last year. But by the end of 2011, however, attendance had swelled to nearly 4,000.

The program offers a broad range of classes: video art with students from the nearby Academy of Art; food programs with the local culinary academy; intergenerational dance by the University of San Francisco’s Dance Generators; Chinese karaoke; computer classes; and a vast variety of art programs, films, and lectures. The center also exhibits works by local artists.

“Art is chocolate for the brain,” says Lola Fraknoi, program director for Ruth’s Table, quoting a pioneer in the field of art and aging, Gene D. Cohen, author of “The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life.

As a sculptor and painter herself, Fraknoi has a keen interest in the program’s effects on residents. Art, she says, wakes up senses that have been deadened by bodily disease and cultural disenfranchisement.

“I cannot change the aging process or their relationship with their sons or daughters,” says Fraknoi. “But I can change their environment.”

The key to aging gracefully, she says, is moving forward – not looking back.

Researchers on aging agree. Founded a decade ago, the Washington, DC-based National Center for Creative Aging promotes creative expression to foster a healthy aging process.

The hodge-podge of offerings at Ruth’s Table speaks to the approach senior centers should start taking in preparation for aging Baby Boomers, who have different sensibilities than the previous generation. That is, many Boomers no longer want to be told by administrators what classes to take and when to take them, Bethany’s director, Brown, told the Bay Area Senior Health Policy Forum last fall.

“One of the successes of Ruth’s Table is that it was designed by the seniors themselves,” he said.

Ruth’s Table is named after acclaimed artist Ruth Asawa – whose family was interned at the infamous Japanese camps in the United States during World War II – and was a student of artist and educator Josef Albers and architect Buckminster Fuller. Best known for her wire sculptures, the table that she worked at was a popular meeting place for San Francisco artists, poets and politicians. Asawa’s works were shown widely at influential museums throughout the country.

Monica Lee, the center’s Artist-in-Residence, teaches four classes a month at the center, leading a wide spectrum of ethnic participants in art projects focusing on recycled materials.

She stresses that the Bethany program is unlike any other city program because it combines a wide range of ages and is open to the surrounding public.

The program has not been cheap: expenses for the first year were $235,000. Yet Brown says that volunteers, trade outs, and college credit have kept costs from climbing higher.

In the New Year, Ruth’s Table will feature exhibitions by Latino and Chinese artists; Bethany center houses a large contingent of both cultures. Bethany resident Ramirez says the art programs have been ideal for bridging the cultural divide.

“If you’re sitting there right next to them, you get to know them.”

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