Many people think of retirement homes as a place people go to die. Now, due to the diligence and vision of people such as Tim Carpenter, senior residences are being transformed into thriving arts communities, with acting classes, writing groups, theaters, photo labs, art studios and more.
Carpenter recognized years ago that with people now living decades beyond retirement, the way this country provided senior housing needed a significant change.
As the founder and executive director of EngAGE, a nonprofit organization that builds and runs senior housing facilities in Southern California, Carpenter has succeeded in changing the model of retirement, creating affordable senior apartment communities that are “vibrant centers of learning, wellness and creativity”—not sad places to wait out the inevitable.
“It used to be that people would retire at 65,” Carpenter said. “These days people can live into their 90s and beyond. So what to do with all that time matters now more than ever. We started with that idea.”
An example of EngAGE's model is The Burbank Senior Artists Colony, a 141-unit senior apartment community that offers an abundance of art and creativity. It has its own theater group, independent film company, fine arts collective and music program, and an intergenerational arts program coordinated with the Burbank Unified School District.
It’s more like a small college of arts than a senior residence, with a 60-seat theater, arts studios, music performance spaces, a computer media arts center, a digital filmmaking lab, outdoor performance areas, an art gallery and a sculpture garden.
One of enGAGE’s newest facilities will be the on Magnolia Boulevard, which, according to Carpenter, will have 126 units and be finished within the year.
EnGAGE also built the The Piedmont Senior Apartments and Park Plaza Senior Apartments in North Hollywood, as well as 17 other senior living facilities in Southern California.
Since he was a kid, Carpenter recognized that seniors had more to offer than their younger counterparts.
“I grew up in an Irish-Catholic, multigenerational family,” he said. “I always thought old people told better stories, and [I] would gravitate to that end of the dinner table.”
Carpenter was born in Pittsburgh and grew up in upstate Goshen, NY, where he was introduced to the idyllic Yaddo arts community as a child.
“I saw that space and I knew there were a lot of famous artists there," he said, "and it gave me the idea to have this kind of space with seniors.”
Starting out in journalism and writing advertising copy, he was hired by a health care company to do marketing, which he did for 17 years. Working with several health firms, including Med/Max Health Management and Horizon Health Management, it was visiting senior residences here in the Southland that inspired him to make a change.
“I went into one of these places and there was no life there," Carpenter said. "People were just sitting around in chairs with nothing to do. I started thinking of how to change this.”
He asked himself where he found inspiration, and it was in his writing. So he started a writing class in Duarte, which was the first step in not only giving seniors an artistic outlet, but also a means by which they could express themselves.
“It was about teaching people how to write, and focusing on their own stories, what their voice was," Carpenter. "Everyone has a story, and everyone loves telling their story. We live in a country where people don’t want to listen to or look at older people. And this was a way of changing that.”
That change became substantial when he teamed up with John Husky of the Meta Housing Corporation.
“John has had the biggest influence on me,” Carpenter said. “I owe everything to him.”
In 1999, with support from Husky, he founded the nonprofit More Than Shelter For Seniors, and with these humble Duarte origins, he set about envisioning and creating a whole new approach to senior living.
He renamed the organization EngAGE to reflect its goal of creating senior housing which would “truly engage people and provide them with a sense of self-awareness, value and community.”
“EngAGE takes a whole-person approach to creative and healthy aging," Carpenter said. "We provide arts, as well as wellness, lifelong learning, community building and intergenerational programs.”
Today that vision is a reality, with thousands of seniors living in affordable and engaging senior apartment communities in Southern California.
But creating an alternative to a system that had been in place for so long was a genuine challenge. “We had to find a model of how to do it,” he explained. “We looked at a lot of models and didn’t find anything that were very good. “
The breakthrough came when he recognized the parallel between retirement and going to college, realizing college was the model he needed.
“Retirement and going to college are similar, because they are both significant leaping off points in your life, going from one phase into another," Carpenter said. "In college, you are starting to plan your career; when you retire, you leave your career and move into a new phase of life. If you look at that phase with the goggles of opportunity, that this could be a great new stage of your life, it makes all the difference.”
The arts speak to the imagination and creativity, he said, nurturing people in ways they’ve never known.
“People work their butts off their whole life and don’t pay any attention to their soul," he said. "They go for years working to make a living, to raise kids, send them to college, be responsible parents. And then suddenly they retire and start thinking about why they are here.
“Art creates a positive sense of community to find those answers, because life becomes about being creative, and not about getting old. Instead of sitting around talking about their various illnesses and hardships, they’re talking about art, whether it’s painting, writing, music. All of it is good for the soul.”
“When I speak to crowds,” he said, “I ask how many people want to get older, and only about half raise their hands. Well, getting older is better than the alternative. We have to face up to the fact that we’re all going to get older, and plan for that. It isn’t the end of your life; it’s the start of a new phase. And for many, it can be the best time of their lives.”
Much like in college, where students independently attend classes and work towards degrees, Carpenter builds programs that enable seniors to progreess independently.
“We’ve got college-level teachers offering classes, and we created a semester system for classes," Carpenter said. “People learn skills and how to apply them. And we have culminating events. A writing class, for example, culminated in a staged reading, while an arts class can have an exhibit.”
“It’s all about re-envisioning the idea of senior life,” he said, “with courses in wellness, nutrition, arts, how to use computers, get on Facebook—everything. And when we say art, it’s art without popsicle sticks. It’s real art, not arts and crafts.”
Carpenter said he thinks most seniors are prepared for this kind of experience.
“I think what happens is that we take at least a week just getting seniors to understand their own worth, and to undo what society has told them—that seniors have no value," he said. "We create role models, and teach them how to set a goal, reach a goal, have success, show it off.
“There’s a lot of peer-to-peer work, so that someone thinks, 'Well, if she can do it, then so can I.' It’s a kind of competition but it can be effective, such as moments where Mary is onstage telling her story and John is in the 4th row, feeling he could do it better. If that gives him a reason, that’s great.”
“It’s all about dignity and respect,” Carpenter said. “True dignity comes from someone who feels good about who they are. As Bette Davis said, `Aging ain’t for sissies.’ We understand that. We’re not trying to sell anyone on aging. We just want an even playing field.
“Old folks have all the same dreams and psychological issues as everyone else. We treat them with respect, but with that comes high expectations.... It’s something you never did before – but you will try. I think that is something that is really important—and necessary.”