Many of us look forward to spending retirement expanding our world — traveling, trying what we never had time to do, taking classes that give us new knowledge and skills. These activities are not only desirable in themselves; they help us to live longer and healthier lives.
But they are not within everyone’s reach. Absent money and a sense of possibilities, retirement can become more time to fill with television. “We see people without money, who had very hard lives, who are not aware of their own potential,” said Maureen Kellen-Taylor, the chief operating officer of EngAGE ,a program in the Los Angeles area that provides arts and other classes for some 5,000 people — the vast majority of them low-income — living in senior apartment communities. “They just had to get through life, taking care of things, and the idea of following a dream was not on their radar screens.”
That’s why the Burbank Senior Artists Colony is remarkable. Opened in 2005, it is a mix of market-rate and low-income apartments. The building looks like an upscale hotel but is built for the arts, with studios, a video editing room, a theater and classrooms.
Residents may arrive with no previous artistic experience or skill as an artist — but artists they become. The theater group that Sally Connors participates in is working with a troupe in London, via Skype, to write and perform a soap opera. Walter Hurlburt shows his oil paintings — for sale — at the colony’s periodic art exhibitions. Residents work with students from a nearby alternative high school to do Improv Theater, make films and create art from recycled items.
The Burbank colony is the showpiece of EngAGE, an organization started in 1997 by Tim Carpenter. He was working for a health care company that built primary care centers for senior citizens when he met John Huskey, a Los Angeles developer of affordable housing. Carpenter and Huskey began to talk about how to combine what each of them was doing. They had originally contemplated establishing acute-care health centers in senior apartment buildings, but now had a different idea. “We live in a society that’s very acute-care based — we wait till someone’s sick,” Carpenter said. “We decided to try to get people to take on healthy behaviors without having to go to the doctor.”
EngAGE now brings arts training, wellness programs and computer and classes to 27 senior apartment buildings in the Los Angeles area, and will add another eight over the next year, including two — in North Hollywood and Long Beach — that, like Burbank, will be designed for the arts. The NoHo Senior Artists Colony will open in October with a 77-seat professional theater in the lobby. Burbank and the Piedmont Senior Apartments in North Hollywood have a mix of market rate and subsidized apartments, but the other 25 are all for low-income seniors. Most of the residents are living on less than $15,000 a year. They pay $400 to $800 a month for a one- or two-bedroom apartment.