How Kansas And Missouri Seniors Are Connecting To The Arts

Oct 5, 2015

A love of the arts doesn’t fade as we age. But getting older – and less mobile – presents some challenges for seniors who still want to experience arts and cultural events.

For our series Aging in Place, a few local seniors shared strategies for connecting with the arts — such as looking for new sources of transportation, reaching out to arts opportunities at home and volunteering.

Getting active in the arts in retirement

Two hours before former Tonight Show host Jay Leno takes the stage in mid-September at the Kauffman Center, volunteers in crisp white shirts and royal blue vests are already starting to arrive for that night’s assignments. "I’m in mezz two today," says Joanne Mehmurt, when asked where she's stationed. "Yup, up in the mezzanine."

Mehmert retired in early 2011. The Kauffman Center opened in September, and by October, Mehmurt was volunteering. "It was like their gift to me. I said, 'This is my retirement gift.'"

Four to seven times a month, Mehmert hands out programs and shows people to their seats – and she also helps them navigate in and out of the building. Volunteering, she says, has been a way to get active in the arts.  

Charlotte and Bob Ronan attend performances at the Kauffman Center, and as volunteers, they enjoy 'sharing it with other people.'
Credit Laura Spencer / KCUR

  Charlotte and Bob Ronan moved from Brookside to downtown Kansas City in 2008. Before the Kauffman Center was up and running, they were part of a membership group called "The Ambassadors."

Volunteering in retirement has deepened their commitment to cultural events.

"We have more time, for one thing," Bob says, and Charlotte adds, "We come to the symphony, and the opera, and lots of other things here, as well as the volunteering. We thoroughly enjoy the arts." 

The Kauffman Center has nearly 600 active volunteers, and about a third of them are over 65.

"We rely on volunteers to be kind of the front lines of greeting our patrons," says Paul Schofer, president and CEO. "For them, it's a great social experience. It's giving back to the community at a time when they have the flexibility to do so." 

Schofer says volunteers also provide valuable feedback that’s led to changes, like better signage and added seating for people with mobility issues. In many cases, seniors are carpooling – like his mother, who is 82 and still driving.

Reaching out to new services to access the arts

But if you’re a senior and no longer driving, it can take an extra effort to get to a performance.

Lawrence resident Rita Haugh tried a new transportation service to attend a performance at the Lied Center.
Credit Laura Spencer / KCUR

Rita Haugh, 94, moved into independent living at Presbyterian Manor in Lawrence, Kansas, two years ago. The facility provides buses to scheduled activities.

But, when Haugh wanted to see a favorite musical, Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Lied Center on the campus of KU, she had to make other arrangements — a ride with Community Village Lawrence

"We really just want to facilitate people getting out, getting to places, or getting the support they need in any way," says Ben Tasner, who heads up a pilot program with Community Village Lawrence to fill some of the transportation gaps for seniors, especially on evenings and weekends.

"We made it clear that we’re not just going to doctor’s offices, and grocery stores," says Tasner, an AmeriCorps VISTA serving as a program coordinator. "We want to take people to social events, educational events, and allow people to enjoy quality of life, and being able to get out of their house when they otherwise might not be able to."

About 20 seniors are enrolled in the program so far, and an added benefit is getting a little extra help. Tasner, who is in his early 20s, walks Haugh in to the Lied Center, helps her get her ticket and finds her seat.

The Lied Center has a cluster of ushers – about 40 on this day – greeting patrons, and directing traffic flow. And 80 percent of their ushers, about 135 in all, are over 65.

Standing in the balcony, Haugh says she and her late husband loved to attend musicals and plays. "Our seats used to be down there in the corner, in the second row, when I was able to walk without my Cadillac," she says, referring to her walker by its nickname.

Haugh does have some challenges with stairs. So it’s back in the elevator, up one level, and she’s found her seat. "Yes, we made it. Believe it or not," she says with a laugh.  

Making art can take place anywhere

Regina Pachter plays piano near the front entrance of Village Shalom. Residents often stop and listen to her play.
Credit Laura Spencer / KCUR

"Hello?" says Regina Pachter, as she walks into the Epsten Gallery at Village Shalom in Overland Park, Kansas. She's quickly greeted by curator Heather Lustfeldt.

The retirement community opened 15 years ago at 123rd Street and Nall Avenue – and this white box gallery was always part of the plan.

"A lot of people here at Village Shalom have lived very expansive lives, they’ve traveled the world," says Lustfeldt. "They like the fact that they can come here to the Epsten Gallery and sort of be transported outside the walls of Village Shalom into the world beyond."

The gallery is open to residents and the public for exhibits, art therapy and art-making. 

"Artmaking is a way for them to really connect and be present in the moment in a way that is enhancing their life experience here," Lustfeldt says. 

Regina Pachter learned to play the piano when she was a young child. She lives in one of Village Shalom’s independent living villas, and still plays the piano every day – including regular gigs for the gallery’s Sunday openings. Pachter just turned 100. 

"You know what I love to play?" she asks, as she sits down on the piano bench. "The last number that George Gershwin wrote before he died: Love Is Here To Stay."

There’s a larger effort now under way to help more seniors connect with the arts.

The non-profit Kansas City Senior Theatre is teaming up with the Missouri Arts Council for a new program called the KC Arts and Aging Initiative. The idea is to bring together stakeholders — in the arts community and the aging network —to make the arts are  accessible, through all stages of life.

Resources for seniors

Here are links to some organizations working to connect seniors to the arts:

Laura Spencer reports on arts and culture for KCUR 89.3. You can reach her at lauras@kcur.org, or on Twitter, @lauraspencer.