Campus for Creative Aging helps Southwest Michigan seniors find purpose after retirement

This article is part of State of Health, a series about how Michigan communities are rising to address health challenges. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.

Since 2017, the Campus for Creative Aging has been offering a variety of innovative opportunities for older adults in Berrien, Van Buren, and Cass counties – and helping younger residents understand and respect their older neighbors.

In collaboration with community organizations throughout the three counties, the Region IV Area Agency on Aging (AAA) organizes the Campus for Creative Aging. A learning community where older adults come together to engage in activities fostering creative expression, lifelong learning, and personal growth, the Campus offers educational programs, computer training, speakers, discussion groups, and special events. The initiative also hosts the Arts and Aging Partnership, which seeks to raise awareness of older adults’ experience through theater and visual arts.

“It is about that individual exploration of what (older adults) want the next decades of their life to look like and help them connect to that,” says Christine Vanlandingham, Region IV AAA chief executive officer. “It’s also about shifting a societal perspective that really gives people the freedom, the space, and that empowerment to stay engaged in community when they retire from their nine-to-five job.”
Christine Vanlandingham.
Vanlandingham notes that research has shown that retirement can raise one’s risk for heart disease and other medical conditions by 40%.

“The dangers of that retirement risk can be mitigated by a strong sense of purpose and social connectivity,” she says. “Discovering your purpose, passion, and talents, and then sharing them with others, is good for your health – certainly your physical health, but certainly your mental wellbeing.”

When people plan for retirement, that planning often stops at how they will manage finances to support their retirement years. 

“Retirement is ranked as one of life’s most stressful events in terms of the change of life,” Vanlandingham says. “It’s important to think not just about dollars and cents, but ‘How will I spend my time?’”

Developed through a series of focus groups that began in 2017, the Campus for Creative Aging provides a space where older adults can explore what they want their retirement to look like through classes, volunteer opportunities, and purpose exploration. That might be a new employment opportunity, launching a business, advocating for a cause, traveling, or exploring creative expression.
Literature and information for visitors to the Campus on Creative Aging’s booth at the South Haven Art Fair.
“Those classes are driven by people who want to take classes. We develop those offerings they request,” Vanlandingham says. “We have developed some music programs and a reader’s theater based on community input.”

The Campus for Creative Aging also seeks to spread the word that older adults must be recognized as vital resources in their communities. 

“Beyond the individual impact, it’s that systemic impact, the societal shift in perspective and lifting up the value of older adults — really recognizing as a community that an aging population isn’t a problem to be solved, but rather an asset to be tapped,” Vanlandingham says. “If we put people on the sidelines once they reach a certain age, then we’ve lost a huge community asset.”
The Campus for Creative Aging’s booth at the South Haven Art Fair.
The United Nations counts ageism as a global challenge that leads to poor health, social isolation, and earlier deaths — and costs economies billions. Vanlandingham met with the Berrien County Board of Commissioners in June to develop community strategies to raise awareness about ageism and combat it.

“The youngest commissioner said we should have a community-wide campaign against ageism. I love that people across the age span are beginning to pay attention and say, ‘This is important, and we should be talking about it,’” she says. “Ageism is the one prejudice that directly impacts every one of us. As a young person holding ageist beliefs, you are prejudiced against your future self.”

Arts and Aging Partnership extends campus’ reach

Amy Nichols, Region IV AAA campus coordinator, heads the Campus for Creative Aging’s Arts and Aging Partnership. The initiative engages community partners including the Berrien Community Foundation, Twin City Players, Lake Michigan College, The Ghost Light Theater, Krasl Art CenterCitadel Dance and Music Center, and South Haven Center for the Arts (SHCA) in creating arts programming that tackles aging-related topics.

“It was formed because we were harnessing the power of the arts and aging to change the way people view dementia,” Nichols says. “We know that the arts are very important in bringing those kinds of topics to the forefront.”

The partnership’s first project was presenting the play “The Velocity of Autumn,” about an 80-year-old artist who, when faced with being moved to assisted living, barricades herself in her home with enough Molotov cocktails to take out the block. The partnership commissioned playwright Terry Guest to create its next production, “Memory of a Dance,” about a couple based in Benton Harbor caring for a mother with dementia.  

“Then we were like, ‘We’ve done the theater world. Now it’s time to do something a little different,’” Nichols says. 

The partnership’s next initiative is a visual art project called “Window to Our World,” focusing on caregivers and those they care for. Open to all community residents who are care partners, giving care or receiving care, “Window to Our World” provides two opportunities to creatively express the caregiving experience. Older adults and their caregivers can assemble a nine-inch-square window-like diorama reflecting their experience. Individual care partners can also create a window via collage and marker or pen on a “windowpane” postcard. SHCA designed the project.
Materials for the Window to Our World project.
“You put the box together and out pops the front window,” Nichols says. “In our kits, there is really cool homemade paper, ephemera, crayons, markers, paint, pencils, glue. You can use anything in the kit to represent your journey, or you can use stuff that you have at home.”

The Arts and Aging Partnership is providing 250 free diorama kits as well as the additional postcard kits. Care partners can pick the kits up at Region IV AAA and four other locations, or request delivery. When completed, caregivers will return the projects, and SCHA will assemble them into a unified exhibit.
An example of a Window to Our World kit.
“Through this arts project, we’re shining a light on the value that older adults bring to our communities,” says Kerry Hagy, SHCA executive director and project lead. “Older adults are part of our South Haven community and part of the art center — and always have been. They’re our volunteers, our artists, our members that take our classes and do our work.”  
An example of a diorama for the Window to Our World project.
While “Window to Our World” moves forward, the Campus for Creative Aging will continue to explore other opportunities proposed both by community partners and older adults throughout Southwest Michigan.

“It’s only when we come together and collaborate and coordinate that we can have the biggest impact. That is the key,” Vanlandingham says. “I often say, ‘I don’t need 100 people who think like me.’ It’s all the diverse perspectives coming together that really shape something remarkable for our community.”

Estelle Slootmaker spends most workdays as a journalist and book editor. She also writes poetry and has two books underway: her great great grandmother’s memoir of childhood on Mackinac Island and a children’s picture book. You can contact her at [email protected].  

Photos by Taylor Scamehorn.

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