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New York senior living communities offer workshops with opera singers and Broadway insiders

  • NEW YORK TIMES
                                New York senior communities take advantage of the city’s cultural institutions by inviting artists and experts to their facilities.	Above, Rafael Stepto, right, holds an outdoor music therapy class with Watermark residents Paul Burak, left, Natalie Schaeffer and Martha Eckfeldt.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    New York senior communities take advantage of the city’s cultural institutions by inviting artists and experts to their facilities. Above, Rafael Stepto, right, holds an outdoor music therapy class with Watermark residents Paul Burak, left, Natalie Schaeffer and Martha Eckfeldt.

  • NEW YORK TIMES
                                Above, Peter Kendall Clark, an opera singer, performs a private concert at the Watermark at Brooklyn Heights.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    Above, Peter Kendall Clark, an opera singer, performs a private concert at the Watermark at Brooklyn Heights.

Enrichment classes are a dime a dozen in retirement facilities, but a crop of high-end senior living communities in New York City is offering next-level workshops, taught by local artists and experts from local museums and cultural institutions.

“It is certainly a lot more than bingo,” said Andrew Young, a senior public relations specialist at Brookdale Senior Living, which operates nearly 700 senior housing facilities nationwide.

At Brookdale Battery Park City, an independent-living facility right on the Hudson River, residents have had the chance to attend lectures given by dancers from the New York City Ballet, who perform and talk about the history of a particular show and share details about their performances.

Another class, taught by Robert Amodeo, a working stylist, chronicled the behind-the-scenes and history of costumes and makeup of Broadway shows and film. Amodeo said the lecture was akin to a master class. Sometimes he will bring in a script of a Broadway or television show he has worked on, then reads and analyzes portions of the script with the residents and talks about the approach of designing the costume, wig or makeup for each character.

“It is like going backstage or on set,” said Amodeo, who most recently was a swing makeup artist for the Broadway show “Harry Potter & the Cursed Child,” before the pandemic halted performances. “I often have a captivated audience because I describe my thought process and weave in real-life tales of the business.”

For many residents who move into senior housing, it’s akin to a new chapter in life, according to Whitney Glandon, Brookdale’s director of resident programs. Many seniors feel like they finally have the time to pursue a longtime passion and, in many cases, discover new ones. And because the city attracts a wide array of experts from various fields, Glandon said it’s easy to find teachers.

Other classes have included an American history class taught by a historian and former journalist, and a professor from New York University who spoke about religion.

“And all residents have to do is take an elevator down to participate,” Glandon said.

At Sunrise East 56th, a senior residence set to open sometime this summer on the Upper East Side, the proximity to many museums makes it easy for staff to arrange private tours of area cultural institutions in heavy rotation, according to the executive director, Tom Cana.

There are preliminary plans for tours and programming with the Museum of Modern Art and the American Museum of Folk Art. Artists affiliated with the Society of Illustrators will likely teach classes on-site, Cana said.

A recent popular workshop at Inspir Carnegie Hill was a horticulture class taught by a therapist from NYU Langone’s Rusk Rehabilitation Center, according to Amy Silva-Magalhaes, senior vice president of community operations at Maplewood Senior Living and Inspir. Residents got a chance to learn about various plants and help grow them in the building’s garden.

“Horticultural therapy helps with hand-eye coordination, and there’s something about gardening that sparks a lot of personal stories,” Silva-Magalhaes said.

Classes like memoir writing and art history will also be offered by partners that include the 92nd Street Y and the Jewish Museum.

Martha Eckfeldt, 79, a resident at the Watermark at Brooklyn Heights, said she recently discovered a newfound love for poetry.

“I had never had the time to get into it, but after one class I realized I really liked learning about the poet and the historical context behind the passage,” Eckfeldt said.

On a recent weekday afternoon, Eckfeldt took in a music therapy class that was taught by Rafael Stepto, a music therapist from the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music. A longtime member of various choirs, Eckfeldt effortlessly switched between singing melody and harmony, while others sang and tapped on a steel tongue drum and claves.

Then about an hour and a half later, Eckfeldt found herself enjoying a concert in the building lobby by Peter Kendall Clark, an opera singer who gave outdoor concerts in Brooklyn Heights during the pandemic.

Three decades ago, senior living facilities were places for older Americans to just get health care, according to David Freshwater, chairman of Watermark Retirement Communities. Now, with many studies on aging concluding that mental engagement leads to better health (and vice versa), seniors want to participate in stimulating programming, he said.

Some of the program directors at the residences are artists themselves and have invited personal friends and professional colleagues to teach classes. Glandon is a former professional dancer. Not only did she bring in Amodeo, her longtime friend and collaborator, to teach classes at Brookdale, but she also has taught her own intergenerational dance and art program, which included a dance flash mob in Union Square.

Aaron Feinstein, director of people, arts and culture at the Watermark, is a former theater director and musician. He has asked a college friend, Marielle Heller, who is a writer, actor and director, to come and watch her films with residents and hold a question-and-answer session afterward.

“There’s a level of sophistication to our classes, simply because we’re in New York, the greatest cultural center of our country,” he said.

Feinstein often sits down at the Steinway piano in the lobby to play whatever comes to mind. And yes, he does take requests.

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