S.F. conference finds poetry, art, music in aging process

Hundreds of people attended a first-time seniors event last week — the Poetics of Aging Conference in San Francisco — that had an unintentionally Jewish bent. Several of the keynote speakers and presenters at the expansive four-day conference were Jewish, with many of those active in local or international Jewish organizations.

Dr. Sally Gelardin

The reason for this, explained Dr. Sally Gelardin, the conference chair, is that Jewish tradition values debating and questioning, and “those are the basis of creativity and the arts.”

Artistic and creative expression were central elements of the conference, which was co-sponsored by more than 40 agencies and organizations, including Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the East Bay and the JCC of San Francisco.

Held Nov. 16 to 19 at the First Unitarian Universalist Church, the conference was the brainchild of Nader Shabahangi, director of AgeSong, a network of six senior communities (two in San Francisco, four in the East Bay) that offer senior living and dementia care services.

The event’s website promoted “a get-together for people who are interested in exploring the beauty and depth of life at any stage and age.” Keynote speakers and presenters included author John Gray (“Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus”) author Dick Bolles (“What Color Is Your Parachute?”) and groundbreaking dancer-teacher Anna Halprin of Marin County.

But the conference detoured from the usual lecture format.

“There were arts performances and live theater from the Stanford Summer Theater before every keynote,” said Gelardin, who is Jewish.

In addition, there were poetry readings, roundtable discussions, and a creativity lab that allowed participants to express themselves either in art, song or poetry. The list of more than 90 presenters and lecturers included filmmakers, writers, storytellers and singers.

Barry Barkan visits with seniors at Beit Avot, a nursing home in the Kiryat Menachem neighborhood of Jersualem.

“We didn’t want the conference to be just for professionals and academics,” Gelardin said. “We wanted family caregivers, so we invited the community. We provided multi-sensory presentations, not just PowerPoint.”

Among the featured presenters was Berkeley resident Marion Rosen, an energetic 97-year-old in a wheelchair, whose topic was “Finding a New Life Later in Life.” A longtime healer and massage therapist who created the noted Rosen Method, she focused her talk on “how to re-envision our usefulness through the seasons of our lives,” Gelardin said.

Dr. Ilene Serlin, a psychologist, dance-movement therapist and the former president of the San Francisco Psychological Association, presented “Poetic Movement,” which she said “looked at creativity as a force for improvising a life. Using music and rhythm, I instruct people about creating poetry in motion.”

Gelardin said that other Jewish presenters from the Bay Area — and this is just the tip of the iceberg — included poet David Meltzer, author and j. columnist Barbara Rose Brooker, poet Naomi Ruth Lowinsky, activist-playwright Martha Boesing, writer Suzanne Fried, artist Sheila Malkind and senior advocates Barry and Debora Barkan.

The Barkans’ topic was “Conscious Aging,” which they addressed by looking at the ability of music and poetry to expand consciousness and communicate powerful visions.

“My life’s mission is to restore the role of elders to the culture,” said Barry Barkan, who runs the Berkeley-based Live Oak Institute, an agency that is dedicated to transforming senior residences and services — as well as connecting the contribution of seniors to future generations. “We want to build more communities that empower elders.”

His presentation incorporated storytelling, song, and puppetry and

emphasized how these art forms are often best if they are collectively created.

Barkan and his wife, who operated a senior home in El Sobrante for 18 years, have also worked with senior-care facilities in Israel, promoting creativity with an emphasis on people-centered care.

“Elders are still growing and learning,” said Barkan, who left a career in the mental health industry after he had a vision in 1975 under a live oak tree about caring for elders. “We want to help them build connections and relationships and allow emotions, even sadness, to be expressed. Every social movement begins by changing self-image.”

The conference also included more standard senior conference fare, such as a workshop on Social Security and Medicare, a lecture on renewing one’s energy and health, and a roundtable on caring for aging parents.

But the conference had a stated mission of “countering the mainstream understanding of aging as decline and/or disease with a more expansive, humanistic, and creative — that is poetic — vision and approach.”

It was this “desire to learn and explore this aging process with others,” Gelardin said, that was the “reason so many Jewish people presented at and attended the conference.”