RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
There are famous writers, painters and musicians who've done some of their best work in their later years. Impressionist Claude Monet painted his famous "Water Lilies" in the last half of his life. A few hundred seniors here in the Los Angeles area are proving you don't have to be famous or even a professional artist to be artistically fulfilled in your senior years. They're residing in two senior arts colonies, housing developments designed to make room for the creative life to flourish.
NPR's Ina Jaffe covers aging, and has our story.
NAILAH JUMOKE: And that's page 73 and then, ladies, with an attitude...
INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Seems there's always something in rehearsal at the North Hollywood Senior Arts Colony.
JUMOKE: Tony, even though Vinny's not here, I still want you to be conscious of the pause on page...
JAFFE: Sixty-four year old Nailah Jumoke is the director of an upcoming poetry performance. As the rehearsal breaks up, she says she moved here a few months ago, all the way from her home in Chicago.
JUMOKE: I was looking for a place where seniors weren't being treated as seniors. As an artist, I needed to be around motivation.
JAFFE: The NOHO Senior Arts Colony, as it's known, just opened last winter, but Jumoke heard about it when it was still under construction.
JUMOKE: And I said, yes. This is where I want to be.
JAFFE: She's able to be because some of the apartments here are subsidized, and she lives just on Social Security. But Jumoke says her experience has gone beyond her expectations. For instance, she'd done some theater before, but she was never a writer. Now, she is.
JUMOKE: So I'm learning some new things in my senior age, and being a part of this community is helping me to see that I have a lot more inside of me to come out, as far as creating.
JAFFE: That's no surprise to Tim Carpenter. He founded an organization called EngAge that's been providing arts programs at retirement complexes for years. But his efforts were limited because most retirement homes just didn't have enough space.
TIM CARPENTER: When you get handed a building that has one clubroom, and you want to do more than one thing, it's almost impossible so the idea of somebody watching television and having a poetry class are at odds with each other.
JAFFE: Then, he happened to meet a developer named John Huskey, president of Meta Housing, which builds a lot of apartments for seniors. And Carpenter asked him why so few of his residents were participating in activities.
JOHN HUSKEY: And I say, well, wait a minute, I build good quality housing for them to move into, aren't I done? And he said, I don't think so.
JAFFE: For a while, they had a contentious relationship. Huskey says that changed one day when he asked Carpenter to try to figure out why one of his projects wasn't getting many tenants.
HUSKEY: And he said, I think we can lease this thing up a little bit better with a writing class. And then the laughter. It was very quiet and then the laughter started. You're gonna have a writing class? And it didn't take very long before this worst idea I'd ever heard of was the best idea I ever heard of because it really worked.
JAFFE: So they decided to design new buildings around things like writing classes and painting and performance. The building in North Hollywood has a fully equipped theater. It's home to a professional company that interacts with the residents. It also has painting and sculpture studios like this one at the Burbank Senior Artists Colony that opened in 2005.
Staff members there were hanging paintings for an upcoming show as Tim Carpenter explained that participants can't just dabble, they need to have a goal.
CARPENTER: To have expectations be high and for people to take risks as they get older, instead of saying, oh, you're old now and we're not really expecting you to do anything. If you could just sit here versus somewhere else.
JAFFE: Research shows that there's a positive impact on older people who create art; they're healthier, they're happier, they're likely to stay mentally sharp. Scientists say that more studies are needed, but 86-year-old Buster Sussman seems to be living confirmation of the studies done so far.
BUSTER SUSSMAN: Here down below you, that's my Picasso poster.
JAFFE: The former real estate reporter began painting just recently. One of his Picasso-style posters advertises a fictional gallery called Rat Mort.
SUSSMAN: There was no such gallery, but there was a Cafe Rat Mort around 1900 and it was said to be the wicked place in Paris. During the day, the artists would go there. Wicked, wicked, wicked, you wouldn't have gone there.
JAFFE: How do you feel seeing your stuff being put up on the wall?
SUSSMAN: Oh, I like it. I'm vain. I'm a total fraud as a artist, but you can be vain and a fraud at the same time.
JAFFE: An artistic fraud, maybe. But he seems to be having an authentically good time. Ina Jaffe, NPR News.