Elders Share the Arts (ESTA) affirms the creative potential of older adults and upholds their time-honored role as bearers of history and culture by using the power of the arts to transmit their stories and life experiences in diverse communities throughout New York City and the greater metropolitan area.
For thirty years, Elders Share the Arts (ESTA) has worked with elders in community-based sites throughout New York City to help them find and give creative voice to their stories and life experiences. Starting in 1979 with a single “living history” theater workshop at the Hodson Senior Center (the nation’s first senior center located in the heart of the South Bronx), ESTA soon grew to work in five other senior centers in the Bronx. The performing groups that emerged—all working with material drawn from their own lives—laid the basis for the formation of the Pearls of Wisdom, an acclaimed ensemble of elder storytellers that tour New York City to this day. Soon after, ESTA began to explore the use of other art forms such as writing, dance, and the visual arts so that living history theater quickly became living history arts.
ESTA’s beginning coincided with and responded to major developments in the fields of gerontology and oral history. In gerontology, the psychiatrist Robert Butler, in his provocative book, Why Survive? Growing Old in America (1975), challenged the long-held medical belief that reminiscence was an early sign of senility and, as such, should be vigorously discouraged. Instead, he argued that reminiscence, an activity engaged in by people of all ages but in a heightened way by older adults, is an essential part of healthy aging. Telling stories, and repeating those that hold particular significance, is vital to the creative process of achieving psychological integration—a process rooted in the discovery and passing on of one’s legacy. Concurrently, the field of oral history, initially revived in the 1960’s, had gained new respect and attention as a method of recovering and validating the lives of ordinary people and, in particular, the lives of ethnically diverse people, women, and those lacking official power or status.
Over the years, ESTA’s programs have continued to evolve. In addition to programs for well elders, ESTA works with people who are more physically or cognitively challenged. Intergenerational programming began in 1991, and was cited for excellence by the United States Committee for the Observance of the United Nations International Year of Older Persons in 1999.
In 2001, ESTA was selected to be one of four participating sites nationwide in the groundbreaking research study, “Creativity and Aging: The Impact of Professionally Conducted Cultural Programs on Older Adults,” conducted by Dr. Gene Cohen, Director of the Institute on Health, Humanities, and Aging at George Washington University. The first longitudinal study of its kind, findings point to the direct impact of creative engagement on overall physical, mental, and emotional health. Moreover, Cohen believes that creativity can bloom with greater depth and richness in older adults because it is informed by their vast stores of knowledge and experience—a fact borne out in all of the programs of Elders Share the Arts.