Seated in a circle among a group of senior residents of the Wartburg, the Mount Vernon provider of senior care services, Sarah Lawrence College students Julia Josephson and Claire Flom-Staab open the first session of their six-month theater outreach program. The students get to know the group’s five participants by listening intently to their stories, prompting discussions and asking additional questions.
During the course of the hour-long session, one resident describes her love for playing the piano and writing music. Others are gifted in singing or dancing, while another resident says that she would enjoy creating art or stage decorations.
“We have a perfect group,” said Josephson.
The responses and interests that Josephson and Flom-Staab glean during this initial meeting will be used to shape the course of their outreach program, which will run through May.
“It’s important that when we start with a new group, we meet with them as individuals,” said Allen Lang, director of Sarah Lawrence College Theatre Outreach. “The chemistry of every group is so different, so it’s important to get a sense of who the participants are as people, as well as what they might be interested in pursuing theatrically.”
During the group’s following weekly sessions, the students and residents will share ideas, express their creativity and practice for what will be the culmination of the program: a springtime performance open to the residents’ family and friends. Just what that performance will entail is still up in the air.
“The strengths of this current group are movement, writing, singing and acting, so the workshop will be comprised of those elements,” Lang said following the meeting.The group plans to discuss what specific direction the program will take at their next workshop.
“You can participate any way you want to,” said Aixa M. Rosario Medina, coordinator of Sarah Lawrence’s Theater Outreach, who urged the participants to share the word that residents could even lend their talents behind the scenes. “It’s not one set thing. It’s whatever you’re comfortable with doing.”
“We’re very much here for them,” Flom-Staab said. “We want to make it as individual as possible.”
Josephson said the outreach program’s meetings can add to the residents’ sometimes tedious schedule in an assisted living facility or nursing home.
“I think it’s important to have this in your week, something where you’re reliving things you’ve always enjoyed in art,” she said. “Even if they’re not doing anything yet, we’re just talking about it, but just being able to express what really makes them happy is important.”
This marks Josephson’s second outreach program at the Wartburg through Sarah Lawrence. She also participated in a program that uses improvisational therapy with puppets to help those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
In another program, a visual artist worked individually with seniors to create shadow boxes that reflected their important memories and life events. And a musical theater group from the liberal arts college is setting up a regular series of concerts featuring selections from eras that would most likely resonate with Wartburg’s residents.
“They bring different ideas and things that we didn’t think about doing,” Ann Frey, director of volunteers at the Wartburg, said of the Sarah Lawrence students. “And they just aren’t afraid. They’re not afraid to try something new.”
Frey said the programs also help senior residents recapture pieces of their identity and share their stories with students who are eager to listen.
“Somebody is asking them ‘What did you do? What is your passion?’” she said. “They come here and sometimes that’s lost.”
“Just letting them know that we’re interested in them is important,” said Flom-Staab, a Sarah Lawrence senior studying theater and psychology.
The residents are not the only ones who benefit from these outreach programs.
“We learn a lot about what we’re interested in too,” said Josephson, a Sarah Lawrence senior who studies theater outreach. “Hearing them, I’m like, ‘Of course, I love doing this.’ It’s a back-and-forth.”