Dan Johnson knows that art has the power to lift the spirits of seniors and eliminate the kind of social isolation that can strand them, even if they are surrounded by others in the communities where they live.
Johnson, the outgoing president and chief executive of Minneapolis-based Catholic Eldercare, also knows that sometimes pictures alone aren’t enough to help residents tell their story. So last summer, he led the effort to develop an innovative and immersive eight-week “storytelling” program that combines words with visual images.
The initiative was part of the nonprofit senior housing provider’s efforts to capitalize on its location in the heart of the northeast Minneapolis Arts District as it expands its facilities. It’s an endeavor, Johnson said, that creates a sense of community within — and outside — the organization.
“It’s a common, well-developed strategy for creating optimal living experiences for our older friends,” he said. “But we sit in the largest arts district in the country … we’re in a community that just drips with it.”
The organization is looking at new ways of that refining that program and creating new ones to help residents. Doing so may also help Catholic Eldercare compete for residents in an increasingly competitive marketplace.
It now offers a full range of care on an expanding campus just three blocks from the Mississippi River in northeast Minneapolis. A new 40,000-square-foot addition to an existing building provides transitional care and rehabilitation space. The organization also operates two subsidized independent-living facilities elsewhere in northeast Minneapolis.
And when Catholic Eldercare executives planned Wyndris — its market-rate independent-living facility, which opened in 2018 — there was a special emphasis on including space where residents can gather to create and display artwork.
Johnson said that while the arts have long been a part of Eldercare’s programming, he decided last year to bring in a consultant, Kate Houston, to help develop a more immersive and comprehensive program. Typical programs include drop-in art classes and tutorials, or demonstrations.
Together, they assembled a team that included another artist and writer and used staff to help recruit residents of all abilities. Working in four groups, residents worked with the artists and writers to create foldout books that tell a story that was particularly important to them.
That project, called “Memory Speaks in Pictures,” culminated in a gathering where residents framed and displayed their work. In some cases, the artist resident or staff, read the words aloud to family, neighbors and other residents.
Houston said that producing something tangible, and then displaying it, elevates the experience beyond just developing new skills.
“Once something gets framed and it’s in a book, people get a new appreciation for what’s accomplished,” Houston said. “And when you culminate in an event that recognizes what they did, they get a new appreciation for what they can do in a phase of life where they’re experiencing limitations.”
Johnson is credited with creating an award-winning community engagement program to mitigate social isolation for seniors. Johnson said the program was also inspired by the recognition that the next generation of senior residents won’t be content with the activities that are common today.
“In 10 years when the boomers hit our doors, not many of them are not going to be too interested in bingo,” he said. “Meaningful engagement in life changes over time, and we better be ready to change because it’s not going to the way it has always been.”
Earlier this month, Johnson announced plans to retire. He will be succeeded by Greg Baumberger, the organization’s chief operating officer. As the leadership change is underway, Catholic Eldercare is looking at how to refine the storytelling concept and incorporate it into its regular programming. But it’s a costly proposition that requires hiring outside staff.
And logistically, it’s complicated because residents of varying abilities in multiple facilities have to be transported to a central work studio. Johnson said the next phase of program isn’t likely to happen until they have the funding.
“We did some evaluation of that and are thinking about next step,” Johnson said. “We won’t do it quite the same way.”
Houston, who is a program manager at Commonbond Communities, said that while variations on the theme are widely used by senior living community managers throughout the country, the storytelling project at Eldercare is bound to have an enduring effect.
“People discovered something about themselves but also their neighbors, and that’s contagious in communities,” Houston said. “It’s magical to see what happens to people; we forget what creativity does for the human soul and for community.”