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The Seniority explains the importance of ‘aging in place’

By Vicki Nelson, Executive Director
Compassionate Care Alliance

A reading of "The Seniority" at the Grange Hall in Big Sur, CAA recent reading of The Seniority in Big Sur left audience members invigorated about aging.

Aging is not a topic typically embraced with much excitement, but by the end of the theatrical presentation the California coastal community of Big Sur was organizing a series of community meetings intended to educate their aging population about the importance of aging comfortably in one’s own home.

“Healing Through the Arts” is a core program of the Compassionate Care Alliance (CCA)—a grassroots coalition formed in 2002 dedicated to improving end-of-life care in Monterey County. The program was inspired after CCA was introduced to the play Vesta at an end-of-life conference, and we immediately saw the value of using theater to discuss these importance issues.

For those not familiar with Vesta, it is play intended to teach and illustrate the issues related to the end of life as a medical, legal and social issue. Because it is a drama, Vesta is a presentation of distinct individuals in conflict: the main character and her family, and the doctors, social workers, long-care managers and bureaucrats who are inevitably involved in her decline and ultimate passing.

Since ancient times, theater has been used to engage communities by raising awareness around social issues. The use of theater to discuss social challenges gives community members a new way to work through emotions surrounding illness, death and grieving.

Vesta fits perfectly within the mission of CCA: To create opportunities for dialogue and education on end-of-life issues, care choices, and planning. Research shows that art programs and social change are linked and can create stronger community ties and enhanced self-confidence among participants. When an audience discusses their personal stories after a production, the audience sees how much they have in common with one another which help them cope with challenges and brings the community together.

After successfully staging ten readings of Vesta, CCA was approached by a local writer who expressed interest in creating a play that would help CCA with educational outreach. This led to collaboration with playwright Cindy Gum and four plays written specifically for CCA. The first three plays—Call 911, Legacy, and Exit Strategy—deal specifically with healthcare issues related to the end of life.

The fourth play, The Seniority, explores the issue of “aging in place,” which is defined by the Centers for Disease Control as “the ability to age comfortably in one’s own home and community safely, independently, and comfortably, regardless of age, income or ability level.”

The Seniority is especially poignant to Baby Boomers as they will not age in place the same way as their parents. Boomers are most interested in independence which, at times, can lead to social isolation. Aging in community, rather than alone, will make the Boomers’ experience of old age different from anything experienced in previous generations.

As a playwright, Gum is able to mirror experiences the audience can relate to. Issues faced by characters in The Seniority motivate the audience to examine their own lives.

“My intention as a playwright is to invite characters and their story to mirror the social issues of the community that are relevant and purposeful to the audience,” Gum said.

“Theater invites the logic of the mind to join the wisdom within the heart to experience life’s opportunities and challenges.”

As for residents in Big Sur, they are currently planning a series of community meetings to tap into lessons learned from The Seniority.

CCA could not ask for a better outcome from our Healing Through the Arts program, and we consider this one of our greatest successes.

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