The art of life: For seniors, music and the arts brighten their days and broaden their social life


A mix of rhythmic drumbeats and laughter filled the halls recently at the Willows Retirement Apartments in Bellingham as an enthusiastic group of residents took part in an African drumming and percussion workshop.

Bill Ouweneel says he joined in so he could learn about drumming and have a little fun, and says he accomplished both.

"I'm curious about things," the 83-year-old says. "It's always satisfying and kind of exciting to try something new, or learn about something you don't know a lot about."

Or to revisit something you did in the past. Decades after he last performed in recorder groups in Philadelphia and Manhattan, Ouweneel recently bought a new recorder and lined up a local instructor.

"It's been 44 years since I last touched a recorder," he says, "but I'm excited to get going on it again."

Ouweneel also is the Willows' resident wine expert. After studying at a Napa Valley wine academy and teaching wine appreciation classes at Whatcom Community College for several years, he now shares his knowledge in popular monthly classes at the Willows.

Growing older doesn't mean the end of new experiences, as many Whatcom County seniors can attest. In fact, it can often open up the time and opportunity to try things that never seemed possible or likely in the past.

Two years ago, Willows resident Maggie Weisberg, 89, signed up for a weekly improv group led by Bellingham instructor Sheila Goldsmith.

"I think of myself generally as a serious person, and never, ever imagined I would do improv," Weisberg says with a laugh. "But I'd have to say that it's actually become an important part of my life.

"It lets us open up a part of ourselves that doesn't often appear," she says. "It's very freeing, and it's just so much fun. We laugh the whole time."


Studies of seniors indicate that participating in arts and music activities can be linked to improved cognitive function and memory, general self-esteem and well-being, as well as reduced stress. Benefits have been noted both when older people had lifelong arts experience as well as when they took part in programs or classes for the first time. Many arts activities also involve social interaction, which offers many rewards of its own.

Jessica MacKnee, the Willows' program director, sees positive results when seniors take part in arts and music, especially when the activities are new to them.

"It dispels the myth that once you've reached a certain age you've learned or done all you're going to do," she says. "It's neat to see people thrive in a whole new way. I often hear our residents say they're not at all creative, but if they're open to trying something new, they're often surprised by what they can do and how much they enjoy it."

MacKnee says the arts can also facilitate people getting to know each another.

For example, Prue Slentz, 86, moved to Bellingham from Syracuse, N.Y., only last October, yet is the featured artist in a Willows gallery that had its grand opening in July. The gallery displays dozens of Slentz's works in a variety of mediums.

Some are sketches of places she has lived in Europe; others are of jazz musicians she watched perform on trips to New Orleans with her husband. Put together, they tell the story of a life that none of her fellow residents knew about.

"A lot of our residents, like Prue, had culturally active adult lives," MacKnee says. "Her personality and her life really come through in her art, and it's been rewarding to see other residents learn about her through it."

Lynden's Loretta Wright is a perfect example of personality expressed through art. The vivacious 89-year-old performs regularly on piano, and for almost 20 years led the zany Looney-Tooney Kitchenaires Band with her husband, Merle.

When Merle died last fall, Loretta moved to the Meadow Greens Retirement Community in Lynden and wasted no time reviving the tradition.

"Once I moved in, I decided I needed to keep up the fun," she says. "Now we're called the Looney-Tooney After-Nooney Band, and everyone is welcome to join in with anything that will make some noise."

"It's good for old people to get into something like this," she adds. "Old people need fun, and it's good for them to laugh."


Whatcom County's senior centers are a good place to start the search for arts and music opportunities.

At Ferndale Senior Center, members recently enjoyed a visit with students from a girls' school in Japan who demonstrated origami and calligraphy and shared other aspects of Japanese culture. The center also offers drop-in quilting, crafts and woodcarving groups, and is planning a Bob Hope-style variety show in November featuring several local artists.

In Lynden, the senior center offers line dancing and clogging classes, Friday musical jam sessions and singalongs, and regular music and dance performances by local artists.

Drop-in opportunities also abound at Bellingham Senior Activity Center, from singing, writing and rug hooking, to portrait sketching, painting and several kinds of dance, including line, ballroom, tap and English country.

Bellingham member Helen Solomons, 74, recently organized a drop-in theater reading group that meets at the center twice a month to read scripts and radio plays. The group also has attended performances and enjoyed behind-the-scenes tours at Bellingham Theatre Guild and Mount Baker Theatre.

"Each time we meet, more people show up," Solomons says. "The nice thing about reading theater and radio plays is that you can be any age and read the part of any character."

"Anyone is welcome, whether they have theater experience or not," she says. "We're just out to have some fun, and we always do."


For details about programs at senior centers in Whatcom County, call or visit these locations:

Bellingham: 315 Halleck St., 360-733-4030

Blaine: 763 G St., 360-332-8040

Everson: 111 W. Main St., 360-966-3144

Ferndale: 1999 Cherry St., 360- 384-6244

Lynden: 401 Grover St., 360-354-4501

Point Roberts: 1487 Gulf Road, 360-945-5424

Sumas: 461 Second St., 360-988-2714

Welcome: 5103 Mosquito Lake Road, 360-592-5403

Linda Shindruk is a freelance writer in Lynden.

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