Creative Aging: Keeping Generations Connected at New England Conservatory

Older adult learners part of NEC’s Community Performances and Partnerships Program (CPP) tune into a live interactive performance by student, Andrey Chen. Credit: Tanya Maggi
Older adult learners part of NEC’s Community Performances and Partnerships Program (CPP) tune into a live interactive performance by student, Andrey Chen. Credit: Tanya Maggi

New England Conservatory works with more than 40 senior service organizations around Boston to welcome approximately 75 older adult learners onto their campus each week.

The conservatory offers learning opportunities for older adults through two programs: the School of Continuing Education offers instrumental studio lessons, ensembles, and classes that traditionally happen on campus, and the Community Performances and Partnerships Program (CPP) offers interactive performances, workshops, teaching and intergenerational social activities off-campus, with a focus on building relationships between college students and older adult learners.

When the pandemic initially hit, NEC knew we had to quickly adapt to a virtual world and maintain the connection between their older adult students, faculty, college students and community partners.

“We recognized how crucial social connection would be for older adults, as one of our partners put it, ‘I fear a very scary rise in depression and other mental health challenges — the cabin fever and lack of social contact will have such a negative effect on this population,’”

said Tanya Maggi, Dean of Community Engagement and Professional Studies. Faculty and staff addressed this fear head-on, transitioning their one-on-one lessons to a virtual format and creating innovative and responsive virtual programs for large groups of senior participants.

“In general, acting quickly was an important part of quelling the anxiety of our students and kept relationships consistent against the backdrop of so many unknowns,” said Tanya.

“It’s About Attitude, Not About Age”

NEC students live streamed their performance for the online program, “Never Too Late,” offered through the Boston Public Library and part of the CPP Program. Older adult participants interacted through the chat during the performance.

One of the learning curves that the NEC staff and their partners experienced was during the online program, “Never Too Late,” offered in partnership with the Boston Public Library. CPP created three live-streamed educational programs using the CPP YouTube Channel, a platform that neither staff nor students ever used before for this purpose. 

NEC’s CPP Program staff reached out to partnering senior service sites to find out who had the technological capabilities to offer and online programs to participating older adults.

After doing the research, staff members tested the platform to make sure the performances came through smoothly, while also using Zoom to screen share the process of going live with students prior to the actual performance.

Once students and sites were identified, CPP began to schedule live streamed events. “Much of this process relied on the trust we’ve developed over time with activity directors at senior living facilities and a willingness for us to all dive into this new space together,” said Tanya.

“As we encountered a variety of assumptions about technology and older adult learners (as well as older faculty members), we chose to adopt the approach that ‘it’s about attitude, not about age!’” said Tanya. “We are thrilled that we have been able to maintain connection with the vast majority of our students during this time.”

“Desperately Needed Joyful Human Connection”

A moment of connection that has stood out for NEC faculty and staff, happened during a jazz workshop presented virtually for residents at the Residences at 910 in Chestnut Hill, a senior living facility with whom the NEC has a longstanding partnership.

Residents learned about jazz, tapped their toes to jazz recordings, and interacted through a Q&A session from the comfort of their rooms or safely gathered in the chapel. A resident who was quarantined in Scotland was even able to attend the workshop!

“We were able to reach more people than we may have had the workshop taken place in person on site, and the program allowed not only for active learning, but also for desperately needed joyful human connection,” said Tanya.

Tanya’s Advice on Adapting to Online Learning:

“One of the primary lessons we’ve learned during the pandemic is to meet people where they are and listen to what they need.

“Class content and structure may need to adjust to a “new normal,” but it is worth every effort to be able to offer older adult learners a safe space to be creatively challenged, to forge new connections, and to reinvent their own expectations of themselves during these uncertain times. 

“Greatest lessons learned? Be flexible. Be collaborative. Listen to need and be present to what is most important here and now.”

Interviewers: Annie Montgomery and Julie Kline
Writer: Jacqueline DuMont

This article was originally published via Lifetime Arts, a national arts service organization that offers a positive, modern, artistic and social lens through which to serve, inspire and engage America’s growing population of older adults.

New England Conservatory is one of twenty nonprofit arts education organizations selected to participate in the third cohort of the National Guild for Community Arts Education’s Catalyzing Creative Aging Program, in partnership with Lifetime Arts, with support from Aroha Philanthropies, St. David’s Foundation, and other generous supporters.