Creativity Circle

A Creativity Circle participant paints during the creative expression segment of the program. The COVID-19 pandemic would later force the program to shift to virtual sessions. 

A program promoting artistic expression and socialization to curb loneliness among older South Side residents may expand citywide in the summer of 2021 after several successful iterations across the South Side, including Hyde Park.

The SHARE Network at the University Chicago Medical Center, a workforce education and community outreach center in Hyde Park, first piloted Creativity Circle earlier this year in the South Side to remarkable success. The Creativity Circle program — part of an initiative called the Unlonely Project, from Massachusetts-based nonprofit the Foundation for Art & Healing — promotes creative expression, mindfulness and social-emotional learning to reduce loneliness among older adults.

One of the Unlonely Project’s goals is to “raise awareness about loneliness as a pressing health problem and promote creative expression as an innovative approach to alleviate it,” the Foundation for Art & Healing website states.

“We will redesign and relaunch [Creativity Circle] in first quarter 2021 on a revised basis, taking advantage of everything we learned,” said Dr. Jeremy Nobel, the founder and president of the Foundation for Art & Healing and a faculty member of the Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School. “And if all goes well, our plan is to make this program more widely available in the Chicago area in the summer of 2021.”

News of Creativity Circle’s expansion comes during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has exacerbated loneliness among older adults, according to a British Journal of General Practice study. A February report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that social isolation and loneliness are conditions associated with an increased likelihood of early death, dementia, heart disease and more.

The expansion will include the Foundation for Art & Healing’s partnered health systems and large medical groups and more partnerships that it finds in 2021, states Nobel in an American Society on Aging journal. Some of the Foundation for Art & Healing’s partnered organizations and health systems include AARP, Americans for the Arts and the National Intrepid Center of Excellence, states the Foundation for Art & Healing website.

Jason Molony, a program manager at the SHARE Network, helped facilitate the first Creativity Circle sessions in the fall of 2019 at the St. Brendan Apartments in Englewood earlier this year. “Each one of those sessions would have three components to it: creative expression, whether that be painting, listening to music, drawing or collage; mindfulness, like a guided mindfulness exercise; and (social-emotional learning), where participants may talk about brain health, legacy or what it means to be connected to other people,” Molony said.

The social-emotional learning module can strengthen people to establish positive more relationships, handle challenging situations constructively and have a lower likelihood of mental health issues, states the Illinois State Board of Education

The Creative Circle curriculum comprises eight sessions that are each one hour, Molony said. Molony added that the first Creativity Circle pilot was in person, but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the SHARE Network pivoted its programming to Zoom. 

The latest iteration of the virtual program, which began in October, is led by Jenil Bennett, a community health worker at the SHARE Network. Bennett said the program was wonderful, adding, “These Creativity Circles have blessed my life in so many ways. It just really gives me a new outlook on life and what it’s like for older adults...in terms of their health, needing support, needing to stay connected and still feel like a part of society.”

Pat Swanson, a long time Hyde Park resident and artist, who began participating in the Creativity Circle program in October, said she was intrigued by the program’s creative aspect. “(Bennett) put on the shared screen a whiteboard and showed us all how to make our own drawings over each other’s or around each other’s on this shared screen,” Swanson said. “So it wasn’t only technologically interesting, but it was metaphorically interesting.”

Five of the nine participants in the SHARE Network’s current Creativity Circle iteration live in Hyde Park, two live in Bronzeville and two live in Evergreen Park, Bennett said. The participants learned about the program from Chicago Hyde Park Village and other SHARE Network partners, she added. 

Another Creativity Circle program is being virtually conducted by the Blue Door Neighborhood Center, which has offices in Pullman and Morgan Park, Bennett said. The pilot programs were also located in Maine and New York City, states the Foundation for Art & Healing.

While the COVID-19 pandemic forced a transition to virtual sessions, virtual sessions may remain after the pandemic ends. “We see a future for continuing that work in the virtual environment even after COVID-19 because many seniors have challenges with transportation and with being mobile,” Nobel said.

Although Swanson said she overwhelmingly liked the program, she had one piece of constructive criticism. “I appreciate the focus on older people’s creativity,” Swanson said, “but one of the things as an older person myself that I want are multi-generational interactions. I’m aware of being an older person, but I don’t want to live in an older person’s world.”

Nobel will incorporate all age groups in the expanded Creativity Circle program. “Our plan is to explore those types of intergenerational programs in first quarter 2021,” Nobel said. “Our first goal was just to get up and running and see whether we could engage older adults. Now it’s our turn to be creative and expand that model into an intergenerational framework.” 

One challenge of the transition to virtual programming has been finding a viable anonymous feedback model, Nobel said. While facilitators in the in-person sessions provided anonymous feedback sheets, measuring and evaluating the program’s success on the virtual model proved more challenging, he added. “Anecdotally, we’ve been hearing good things. But (the Foundation for Art & Healing) will be assessing that more scientifically,” Molony said.

But the anecdotal and scientific evidence has been more than positive enough to continue the program, Nobel said. “We shouldn’t underestimate the urgency of (loneliness),” Nobel said. “Loneliness (and) isolation in older adults shortens their lives and reduces the quality of their lives, and so it’s urgent to address it.”

Learn more about Creativity Circle on the Foundation for Art & Healing website.

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