Ashoka US Fellow Timothy Carpenter on engAGEing Elder Communities

Ashoka US Fellow Timothy Carpenter on engAGEing Elder Communities

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This interview with Ashoka US Fellow Timothy Carpenter was contributed by , from Thanks, Dowser!

Tim Carpenter, founder and executive director of EngAGE, believes in the potential for continuing education and intellectual growth within senior living centers. EngAGE offers programs in arts, wellness and intergenerational contact in 15 senior apartment communities in southern California, reaching more than 2,000 people residing in low- and moderate-income housing. In his interview with Dowser, Carpenter discusses the importance of reviving the creative spirit of seniors and of integrating a business model with not-for-profit work.

Dowser: What is the purpose of EngAGE?
Carpenter: We want to change the way people age and the way people think about aging. We deliver wellness, arts, lifelong learning and intergenerational programs to low-income seniors. Unlike programs in senior or community centers or schools, we serve folks at their homes—folks who would not normally access this type of education.

 Tell me more about EngAGE’s target population.
The average age is 72 with an average annual income of under $11,000. These individuals struggle with groceries or medication at the end of every month, so the idea of going to high-end classes to improve their lives is not on their radar until we show up.

College-level classes include computer/Internet training, language programs and lectures. We offer classes in creative writing, filmmaking, music, dance, visual arts, theatre as well as concerts, multi-arts events and peer groups. We also teach healthy eating, fitness/exercise, strength training, falls prevention, health education, celebrations of life and more.

EngAGE offers courses on very diverse subjects. How did you come up with EngAGE’s educational model?
We began by looking at colleges. Our classes are taught by professional instructors who we pay. Courses change every few months and people can advance through levels. We’re not talking about art instructors that have groups of seniors sitting in a corner gluing Popsicle sticks together. The art classes are in water-color, life drawing and sculpture; we do college-level writing and acting courses. We produce poetry readings, seniors act in plays written by their peers, and their art is put on display to view by the public.

Tell me why enhancing the intellectual and creative life of seniors matters.
Getting people turned on to their creative side creates motivation. The core issue is not about art per se, but about creativity. You don’t have to create art to be creative. The reaction of your body, soul and psychological make-up when you create is positive. You can write a bad poem and have the same neurological response that James Joyce had when he wrote Ulysses.

What’s a major obstacle that your organization faces?
Most of the resistance comes from the seniors themselves. Many don’t feel they are deserving of these classes or of becoming artists.

Research dictates what to do to age better. But the real question is how do we make these people change their behaviors in ways that will change their lives. Everybody with half a brain knows that if you eat better, exercise, and have a purpose, you are going to age better, but the question is, when you get someone who is 77 years old, how do you get them to take on the behaviors if they’ve never done it before?

How did the driving ethos of EngAGE emerge?
People talk about 'Aha' moments. Before EngAGE, I was working in senior healthcare and found myself burnt out with the structure and regulation. There wasn’t room to do anything creative. One day, I found a man sitting all by himself in the club room. He was, as it turns out, the right-hand man to [automobile legend] Preston Tucker. After hearing about the exciting life of this elderly gentleman, I asked him, ‘What are you doing here?’ He said, ‘Well, I’m dyin’ here.’ And I just thought, ‘There’s gotta be another way.’ EngAGE sprung out of complete enlightened self-interest, the thought that I’m gonna be him someday and someone’s gotta pay attention to this.

So what happened next?
I started teaching a writing course at the senior facility and found someone to teach a computer class. We started at one property, and in a year or so grew it to 400.  After several years, we had over 2,000 units and a several hundred thousand dollar budget. And it was just that one guy who started me on this path. If I had been in another building at another time, who knows what would have happened.

Coming from a background in commercial real estate, did you find the jump into running your own nonprofit daunting?
My first nonprofit job was founding one. At first, I had no idea what I was doing. I read books, talked to people as fast as I could and made it up as I went along. As I learned more about nonprofits, I used my background to mold a business model-orientated organization.

How did you integrate your business experience into EngAGE?
Because we get paid by senior apartment communities for services, we don’t have to raise as much money as traditional nonprofits. We have a minimum fee to pay for what we do—we negotiate, but only up, not down. It’s not a lot of money, but it has huge impact. Plus, I see what we do as having value and that deserves to be paid for. A lot of nonprofits don’t come from that place—they think that doing good means being poor.

Describe your ideal staff.
We have a very strange way of attracting people to the group. We’re a very non-linear organization. The more experience you have in aging, the less impressed I am. People who come from education, arts and culture impress me a lot more. Give me people who have done community theatre, who have made magic out of nothing. They know how to put on a show! I want people who can make rain. When we hire people here, we want them to bring their whole selves to work: their flaws, dreams and egos.

How do you measure success?
Meaning and purpose. In essence, our success is based on the fact that we’re giving people a chance to change their lives.

A Burbank Senior Artists Colony resident, Suzanne Knode, had been in an accident and was really not feeling well. In one of our writing classes, she produced a screenplay that was eventually made into a film called 'Bandida.' She was featured on national television and on The New York Times’ front page, and she’s alive. She’s never been happier in her life. Her story is one of complet