To many creative and mentally active elderly Minnesotans, the kinds of senior housing typically available today are, to be blunt, a bore. Despite the best efforts of providers to liven them up with visits by folk singers or children’s choirs, that just doesn’t cut it for those seniors who still crave a real mental challenge or yearn for the stimulation that artistic creation brings.

They may want the security and other advantages of traditional senior housing, but these seniors can do without the sedate atmosphere. Instead, they want to “age artfully.”

In California, their unmet needs are intersecting with the philosophies of the wellness movement, which recognizes the unique ability of the creative arts to keep seniors mentally healthy. It has prompted a new kind of housing there — senior artists colonies. These are age-restricted apartments that include such unique features as visual arts studios, galleries, stadium-style performing arts theaters and programs conducted by professional artists and wellness instructors.

Now, after receiving a grant from Minneapolis-based Aroha Philanthropies, the idea man behind senior artists colonies — Los Angeles nonprofit director Tim Carpenter — has teamed with local real estate developer Chuck Leer to bring the concept to Minnesota.

Carpenter’s group, EngAGE, directs most of its efforts toward developing arts-based educational and wellness programs for existing affordable senior housing complexes, providing its services to more than 6,000 seniors living in 35 apartment communities in Southern California. These classes are offered on a semester basis in settings inspired by college campuses and arts colonies.

But in recent years, Carpenter has taken the concept further to team with senior housing developers to build new projects from the ground up in the Los Angeles area, thus working the arts functionality directly into their design. These include the NOHO Senior Arts Colony, located in the heart of the North Hollywood arts district; the Burbank Senior Artists Colony; and the Long Beach Senior Arts Colony, built not far from that city’s East Village Arts District.

He believes Minnesota, with its strong traditions and innovative thinking in both the arts and senior housing, is ripe territory to expand the concept.

“We need to change the mind-set that aging is something to be avoided and that we have to warehouse the elderly in places that no one else would ever want to go to,” Carpenter said last week during a visit to Minneapolis. “The idea is to take ‘age’ out of the picture and replace it with wellness and a sense of purpose and optimism.”

Leer, president of the North Loop real estate development firm North First Ventures, said he and Carpenter have had some preliminary discussions with unnamed Twin Cities-area senior housing providers about the artists colony concept. Its introduction into Minnesota might be through the conversion of an existing senior apartment building, but the ultimate goal is to build one from scratch, he said.

“From a real estate perspective, the really interesting thing about them are their unique design,” he said. “We are working with architects, and there’s a treasure trove of nonprofits in Minnesota that could provide all kinds of innovative arts-based programming for them.”

One could be the MacPhail Center for Music, which has a well-established reputation for working with musically creative seniors through individual lessons, classes and ensembles.

It also partners with the Minnesota Chorale on Voices of Experience, an artistically ambitious chorus of Twin Cities seniors aged 55 and older.

MacPhail Chief Executive Kyle Carpenter (no relation to Tim Carpenter) is on the steering committee of the senior artists colony project and cites Voices of Experience as well as MacPhail’s other work with seniors as proof that elderly consumers will respond to arts-based wellness concepts.


Don Jacobson is a freelance writer based in St. Paul. He is the former editor of the Minneapolis/St. Paul Real Estate Journal.