USC Gerontology



The Power of Creative Engagement for Community-Dwelling Adults

By 2025, 78 million older adults born in the U.S. between 1946 and 1964 will be 65. There are indications that, as the economy grows stronger over the next few years, there may be unprecedented opportunities for those who provide independent and assisted living residences to older adults. Recent studies of community-dwelling seniors 60 years or older have demonstrated that there are significant benefits to participating in activities such as education/training classes, entertainment or cultural events programs, and physical fitness/dance classes.

In this webinar, Prof. Shannon discusses his research to confirm the mental and physical benefits of using trained instructors to offer cultural arts courses to older adults residing in senior living communities in the Los Angeles area. An overview of the online Master of Arts in Gerontology and Master of Aging Services Management programs, as well as audience Q&A, follows Prof. Shannon’s presentation.

Learn more about online gerontology degrees at the USC Davis School of Gerontology.


Jami O’Connell: Hello everyone, thank you for joining us for today’s webinar hosted by the online graduate programs in gerontology at the University of Southern California. My name is Jami O’Connell and I’ll be your moderator for this event. I’m an enrollment advisor for the online graduate programs in gerontology. If you previously expressed interest in the program you may have already met me, and a lot of your names do look familiar to me. I know I’ve spoken to many of you, or you’ve gotten my email. I really appreciate you attending today’s webinar.

Before we get started I have a few notes about what you can expect during today’s webinar. You are in auto-only mode, which means you can hear us but we cannot hear you. During the webinar please feel free to type your questions into the question and answer box throughout the presentation as you think of them. We have reserved time at the close of this presentation to address all your questions. We hope you find this session to be informative and helpful.

Now I am pleased to introduce our presenter today, Dr. George Shannon, who is an assistant professor at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. Dr. Shannon Earned his master’s of science of gerontology and PhD from the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology and is an active member of Phi Kappa Phi All-University National Honor Society, Golden Key International Society and Sigma Phi Omega National Gerontology Academic Honor Society. In addition to his teaching responsibilities Dr. Shannon is the director of the Hongxiang Xu Center for Regenerative Life Science at the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. It’s my pleasure to turn it over to Dr. Shannon. Thanks for joining us today.

George Shannon: Thank you very much, Jami. I appreciate that introduction, which is always nice to hear. It’s always nice to hear because I’m still on the planet. I always say, when I wake up in the morning it’s a good sign.

The agenda for today is going to be aging in the 21st century, the needs of aging adults, the CASLE pilot project which is something that I’m working on, specifically I’ve received a research award from the University, from the donors actually of the School of Gerontology, to proceed with this work. We’ll talk a little bit about the USC Leonard Davis School, the MAG program and the MASM online programs, and have a bit of a question and answer session afterwards. I’m going to attack this by talking a little bit about creativity, and then a little bit about aging and then a little bit about creativity and aging, and then I’ll talk about my specific project, the CASLE project, and then we’ll talk some more about the graduate programs. We’ll have a question and answer session after that.

Creativity, “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere,” that’s Albert Einstein, not a bad guy to talk about. Creativity, he also said that for him creativity was taking two ideas, perhaps disparate thoughts, putting them together in a unique way, synthesizing them and coming up with something entirely new that others hadn’t thought of before. Not that the two ideas that were synthesized were new, but the way that you manipulate them and put them together is new and exciting and creates a new perspective on a subject matter.

In that sense there are two kinds of creativity: there’s exceptional creativity that we all know about in terms of Einstein and Picasso and Van Gogh and Beethoven, and there’s ordinary creativity, which is not to be sneezed at as my mentor Lee Strassberg used to say, but it is nevertheless not the same as that overarching change the way people think about a particular subject matter. Not necessarily a great discovery. If we see, for example, a great movie that we love and we see a wonderful performance, that’s a kind of creativity that’s taking place. It may not change the world, but it certainly is remarkable and demonstrates a kind of work that is unusual and not ordinary.

In patent law, for example, they talk a lot about ordinary skills and inventions, very specific inventions that have not been thought of before. Many inventions are that kind of creativity where they take other ideas, put them together and come up with something new and patentable. Ordinary creativity has an association with IQ, with crystallized and fluid intelligence. Crystallized intelligence is something like lexicon, word proficiency. That will stay with older adults for all of their lives generally and not really diminish much. Fluid intelligence on the other hand, which is associated with reaction time and creativity, may diminish over time. That’s what we’re trying to get to.

Does in fact creativity diminish over time as the output lessens? Many people, Einstein and Freud being among them, suggested that creativity really drops off after age 30, which is really discouraging if it were true. I’d like to think that it’s not true. Recent studies suggest that creativity can continue, although you may lose some of your fluid intelligence, that reaction time, you can still perform creative actions, develop creative ideas across the lifespan, as long as you live. There are many examples of that, for example Picasso was working well into his 90s, Pablo Casals, Whistler’s Mother. All these people were painting and performing and creating art well after 75, after 85 and in some cases into their 90s.

Although it is true that maximum creativity appears to be around the age of 30 and then it does level off and begin to diminish in terms of productivity, but not necessarily in terms of individual talents. After all, older people are a heterogeneous group, we’re not all the same. Creativity will indeed last a lifetime.

Let’s think about aging in the 21st century. By 2011 there were 3 million people who reached age 65. 1.8 million people died. There was a net increase of almost a million people in the 65-plus population, which is considerable when you consider that back at the turn of the 20th century the number of individuals who lived to 75 and 85 was about that in total. We’re talking about the baby boomers. The baby boomers, those people born between 1946 to 1964. We’re expecting 78 million of those people to be around in the year 2025. We have longer life expectancies, not necessarily lifespan but life expectancies, and better health. What does that mean?

It means in terms of my study and what we’re going to be talking about in terms of living environments for older adults, that there are going to be so many more opportunities for the development of independent living and assisted living residencies. One of the guys who really developed this idea of creativity and aging was Gene Cohen. He passed away a couple of years ago. He was at USC delivering about a 2.5-hour speech a year before he died. We really relished that experience, having an opportunity to meet Dr. Cohen and talk with him about some of his ideas. He studied these final 40 years of life, figuring that from 55 to 95 we can expect certainly if you’re in your 20s and 30s right now, it’s not at all extraordinary to think that you’ll be living into your 90s.

There is midlife reevaluation, liberation, summing up and encore. These are stages of development over time from midlife in the 40s and 50s, what we have called the midlife crisis, where we reevaluate our lives. I certainly did it, I went back to school at 55, got my master’s. I got my bachelor’s, my master’s and my PhD by the time I was 64. I know all about midlife crisis. I said, “In a perfect world, what would I do?” I had a successful, routinely successful I must say, successful acting career. I did a bunch of soaps, a lot of commercials, and I did a lot of plays that I love very dearly. At 55 I said, “What can I do now that will cap off this life that I’ve led? How can I get greater life satisfaction? What can I do upon reflection to give a lot more meaning to my life?”

In ages 60 to early 70s we think about our own freedom and the kinds of things that we want to do with our lives that are meaningful, that could be passed on to generations. In a sense we can sometimes go through another kind of personal crisis, not exactly the same as midlife crisis but certainly concerned about what our life has meant to us. There is a kind of a quest for accomplishment, a meaning within the context of one’s life. There is this life reflection stage where we look back, we think about what it is we’ve done and how we can give back to society, to our families, to younger generations. It fulfills an idea that Erick Erickson came up with that he called generativity.

The time we can, if we’re lucky, experience the gaining of wisdom. Wisdom isn’t something that you are automatically entitled to just because you’re old, you have to earn it. It has to be through that idea of looking back, summing up, considering one’s life and the meaning that one can attribute to it and how one can move forward and give even greater meaning hopefully to one’s life in old age. We are after all the keepers, the keepers of culture and knowledge traditionally throughout the ages.

We want to complete unfinished business when we get into our 80s. We want to try to figure out if there’s something new, innovative, creative if you will, a way we can apply what we know to the circumstances that exist at a given time. We affirm life, we celebrate our families, our communities, we develop if we haven’t before, or we might say we enhance the spiritual realm. We can turn inward to find what it is about our lives that we can attribute to successful aging, to providing meaning for the next generation and for those of us who are left whom we feel we want to influence positively. Some would say that creative expression then is the final realm of expression.

What are the needs of community-dwelling older adults, which is something that I’m very conscious of and very aware of and want to help to develop. I’m a member of the committee for senior living that is developing a kind of accreditation for executive directors of senior living, including basic senior living for people who are not in need of services in their continuum of care that goes on as services are required. What we’re working on is trying to develop the kind of criteria, the things that one must know in order to be in charge of a senior living community, which is what many of you are interested in I believe as you get your master’s degree.

We did a needs assessment of the whole Los Angeles area, and I was involved in a couple of them, there were 6 studies since 2006. The most requested activities and needs expressed were for education and training, for entertainment or cultural events and programs, for physical fitness and for dance classes. Which goes along with what we’ve been talking about, the baby boomers have their own interest, their own novel needs for assisted living and senior community housing. They’re interested in innovation, not only in the programming but in the design, the execution of the programs and the people who run the senior housing, which is again what you may be very, very much interested in, and integrating aesthetics with functionality, form and function, plasticity as it were, so that it becomes a total living experience, that it stimulates the mind.

When I go into the Burbank Senior Artists Colony, which is a perfect example of the kind of living environment, built environment that I speak of, I see people walking around with smiles on their faces. They’re stimulated and they’re in a wonderful social environment. The purpose of the study that I’m working on, which follows along the path that I just explained, is to describe and evaluate the effects of an exposure to cultural educational programs provided in the living environment, this themed apartment community. In this pilot study that I’m doing we’ll be using 25 senior adults aged 55 and older living independently in the community.

People say, “What does that mean? Does that mean they want to stay at home when you say that people want to live independently in the community?” Not necessarily. Many people, and I was surprised to find this out myself, want to live in an environment, a community environment, where they have contact with other people, not just older individuals like themselves but younger people as well. For example the Burbank Senior Artists Colony is right next door to a school. There are many projects that really feed on that need for older adults to get to know younger adults and understand what their needs and wants are, and for younger adults to get an idea and really a personal experience of what it means to have a friend who’s an older adult.

These programs that we’re talking about are going to be performance programs, acting, visual programs, art, sculpture, pottery making and literary arts, poetry writing and prose writing, writing short stories and writing plays. All of these things take place in this environment, where in many cases they actually have a theater and specific rooms where the visual arts can be developed. It’s really an amazing living experience. Educational class in wellness, exercise, computer savvy and in language, foreign languages. Many older adults spend their lives saying, “God, I really wish I had learned French,” this is their opportunity. Our experience is that when they do that there are some really positive outcomes that are created.

When we’re talking about measured outcomes we have a series of measures for mental health, physical health and quality of life using different scales, like the geriatric depression scale, to determine levels of depression when they enter the program, but the time they leave the program if those levels of depression have decreased, the loneliness scale that many people experience when they get older and they’re not living in a community environment but living alone. Does that lonely scale change? The moral scale? There are physical health scales. Interestingly enough we find that there are very positive outcomes from the idea, this seemingly simple idea of getting training in creative arts. We have sociability, overall functioning, mastery, assessment of the value of the community and development of new skills and interests. These are the things we’re measuring in this study to determine if the experience is worthwhile.

The master of arts in gerontology, how does all that have to do with your MAG degree? Many of you who are involved in the MAG want to know, understand their own aging process, accommodate the special needs and issues of older adults. Again, as I said it’s not a homogeneous community, it’s made of people with many interests and many needs and many wants. I think it’s such an exciting field, that’s why so many people who get into the study of gerontology find it so worthwhile and such an interesting are to develop and enhance their careers. It’s a wonderful career to be involved in, to be working in the field of gerontology, having your master’s degree which suggests that you’ve done the studies, you’ve done the work and you’ve accomplished something that is truly worthwhile and fulfilling.

The Leonard Davis School is certainly ranked in the top 25. USC is in the top 25 of all universities. The Leonard Davis School of Gerontology is in fact the oldest and largest school of gerontology in the world. It is arguably I think the best, no question about it. It’s a world-class facility, it represents many disciplines. The thing about training with older adults is that you have to do it on a psychological basis, a sociological basis, epidemiologically, that is studying overall trends and disease trends. The things that all of us experience as we get older.

One of the things that I always point out to people is the powerful alumni network. Where else are you going to go to school that you can encounter people all over the world who have trained at USC first of all, and at the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology secondly? The Master of Aging Services Management, which is something that you get a great deal of experience, we have a class that’s run by Dr. Schneider, and I work with him on that class. Where all of the experts over the years, all of the experts who are executive directors and founders of senior living, gather to come in to class 2 or 3 at a time every week and talk about their experiences, what they’re looking for in students and trainees.

It’s a wonderful thing to watch. I love being a part of that class for that reason. The one thing that you can surely count on is the kind of training that you will receive, particularly if you’re interested in becoming an executive director of an aging services organization. We call them communities now, rather than just residences or nursing homes, things like that. We want to make it clear that these are communities where people thrive, where they live and associate and grow and have an active life expectancy.

There are residential care facilities, we call them communities, retirement communities, assisted living communities now. I think the word communities has replaced facilities because we don’t want to continue to talk about things in that kind of medical, hospital mode. We want everyone to know that these are places where you can thrive in a social well-being experience. Indeed you can also get hospice care, home care, new emerging service that are developing. These are all areas where your Master of Aging Services Management degree will provide with the knowledge and skills to successfully work and have a great career.

I’m going to turn this back to Jami who’s going to handle the question and answers section. If you have any questions that have cropped up that you’ve written down, I hope you sent them in. Please do that right now and we will do our best to answer them to help to assuage any doubts that you may have or anything that you’re not sure of, please let us know what it is and we’ll get right back to you. Jami, do you you want to take over now?

Jami O’Connell: Certainly, thank you so much, Dr. Shannon. Now it’s time for the question and answers session. As a reminder if you do have questions please type them into the Q&A box in the lower right hand corner of your screen and then hit send. Now please note that if we don’t get to your question today we will certainly follow up with you directly. Let’s see, we’ve got some questions coming in. Dr. Shannon, we have someone that would like to how to read more about CASLE study, where can they find further information on this?

George Shannon: On which? Oh on my study, the CASLE study. I’m working on that right now as a matter of fact. As I said I received an award to do the pilot study. It was a competitive award and the people who issued the award felt that it would be something that was really interesting and would contribute greatly to the study of aging and older adults living in the community. I will be publishing by next March, I’ll have a paper out on it. At the time if you would like to have any more information about it, if you’re here at school for example, don’t hesitate to ask me about it. We can talk about it further.

I can show you what we’re doing, in fact I can take you to one of the facilities that we’re working on, it would be a great outing to get a chance to see what it is that I’m talking about in terms of older adults getting an introduction, in some cases people who have never done writing, never done sculpture, or in other cases people who have done … There was a dentist for example who had done some sculpture when he was young and always wanted to get back to it, and has his works showing in galleries all over the country. It’s really amazing what the creative training can result in. It’ll be coming up and I welcome any questions that you have over the next year. Just get back to me and I’ll be happy to respond.

Jami O’Connell: We have another question. Looking at the topic of independent living and housing, it really is of interest to me. What courses are available in either the MAG or MASM program that would continue to really look further into this topic?

George Shannon: Specifically as I said 589 class that Dr. Schneider and I teach deals with the management aspect and will actually give you the opportunity to meet the people who have developed, honed and managed all of the biggest senior living environments in the country. There is that. In addition this is a course of work that is multi-disciplinary. You get a chance to learn from an aging perspective all of the psychology and sociology that you need to learn so that you can go out and know what the issues are that you have to deal with as a manager. The only class that I teach that is specific to manager is the 589 class, but all of the classes that we have here contribute in that direction because that is the goal of the career track that you will see for yourself when you look at the different classes that are offered in the management track.

Jami O’Connell: Thank you. I think there’s … It looks like actually a follow up question to what you’re actually talking about. Would you consider this program of study geriatric care management.

George Shannon: Geriatric care management is something that I think gerontologists are perfect to do. Very often it’s done by nurses or social workers. I think that gerontologists in fact bring an extra dimension to geriatric care management, and that is their extensive study in the field of aging. You can get a degree, a master of arts, the master of arts in gerontology is a perfect learning experience to go into geriatric care management. Many do, I’ve met many, particularly at conference, national conferences, people who walk up to me and say, “I was in your class and I’m working as a geriatric care management manager in New York,” or, “in Vermont,” “in Wisconsin.” They’re all over the country, so yeah it is indeed.

The master of aging services management is perhaps more focused on the management aspect but care management is so important. The idea of coordinating teams to work with older adults is key I think to developing better outcomes and happier clients. Without qualification I have to say yes, this is a perfect preparation for that career.

Jami O’Connell: Thank you. We have another question, “I’m very interested in the program and wanting to know the difference between the online degree and if this is also offered on campus. My main concern is that, does the degree show up on transcripts as online, or what does this diploma say?” I can certainly address that question. What’s nice about this online program is that it’s the same program that’s offered on campus. They run concurrently. The same professor, same course work, same homework. You also the flexibility if you want to actually log into a live lecture, that’s certainly not a requirement but it’s a nice flexibility that students really, really appreciate. The program degree does not that it’s online or on campus, it simply will state that you received your master of arts in gerontology or the master of aging services management from the University of Southern California Leonard Davis School of Gerontology.

George Shannon: Yes, and Jami the other thing that’s really an advantage I think is that online people have an opportunity to work in discussion groups. What I find most exciting about having online students is there are students all over the country, in fact all over the world, who are professionals in the business who are caring for older adults at the time that they’re getting their master’s degree. Those people, when they get online and start talking back and forth to the younger and perhaps less experienced persons who are learning about the care management, who are learning about developing skills in aging services management. You have an opportunity to talk to people who are doing, who are experts in the field and who have come back, who may already have 2 or 3 other degrees, but they want to improve their status and get more money and a better job by coming to USC, the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, and getting a master of arts in gerontology or getting a master of aging services management, to enhance their career goals. Yeah, it is the same degree, and there are actually some advantages that the in-class people don’t have.

Jami O’Connell: Thank you Dr. Shannon. We have another question that’s come up. Someone who is very interested in applying to the program and wanting to know if there is still time to apply for our fall term. I can certainly answer that, definitely yes there is plenty of time to still complete the application process, plenty of time for the fall term. Fall classes will start August 22nd. Some of you I’ve already spoken with and have sent information on the admissions’ requirements. Sometimes this process can be turned around in 2 weeks, anywhere from 2 weeks to a month. Really the thing that takes the most time with the application is simply reaching out to the schools that you’ve attended and requesting the transcripts to be sent to us, because what with do with those transcripts is then we put it through a Grade Point Average calculation.

We examine the transcripts to determine what your overall Grade Point Average is. That’s something once you reach out to your university, then that’s really the first step in the application process. In addition, reaching out to people who can write you a letter of recommendation. Those can be either professional or academic. Those are two things that you want to start off with first because those are things that once you’ve started them they’re in the hands of someone else. Additionally make sure that we get an updated résumé as well as the statement purpose, which is in your own words why you’re pursuing the program, what you hope to contribute to the field and why USC is your school of choice, and then obviously actually answering the questions in the application and filling that out and completing it. It’s my role to assist you through the process to make sure we have everything, to give you updates on your application and to make this as seamless and trouble free as possible.

Yeah, plenty of time to apply for the fall term. Really the absolute latest that we would want to get everything in would be probably that first week in August. Someone’s interested, “Can someone start in the Spring semester?” Certainly. Right now the application website is going through a bit of a change. That certainly doesn’t impact any of the fall applicants but starting for Spring and then moving forward, we’re going to be using a new site. As soon as that’s being rolled out, I will certainly send the link out so you can start the application for Spring. I already have about 4 or 5 people, that have already … They haven’t able to fill out the application but at least started the process getting the transcripts in to me, letters of recommendation, which is fine. It’s never too early to start. Yes, very good question.

Another question’s come in, “How much professional experience do you need to be admitted into the program? How much is typical for students in the program?” Very good question. It really varies, there’s no requirement for professional experience. We have a range of students that have little to no experience, those that have years of experience, a little of experience in other fields, ranging anywhere from social work to someone in criminal justice, finance, legal. It’s really the type of program and field study that really reaches out to everybody.

George Shannon: I can speak to that as well because when I walked in and sat down and told them I was an actor for 30 years, the professor I was talking to said, “That’s interesting. That sounds like it might really work for us, we’re looking to diversify, to get different people who have worked in other areas to come in and learn about aging and take it out into the community.” Yes, it is not a requirement that you have been working in a hospital or in a doctor’s office or something like that. Not at all, in fact the kind of diversity that you bring to your studies can make it very exciting and interesting, both for the professors and for you.

Jami O’Connell: Okay, thank you very much, Dr. Shannon. Here’s a question that comes up quite often, and it’s not the easiest question to find, or the answers to find on the website but I can certainly address this, a bit about the pricing of the program. The way the program works is that each class, whether it’s in the master of arts in gerontology or the master of aging services management, every class is 4 units and every unit is $1,733. When you multiply that by 4 you’re looking at a total cost per class of $6,932. Then you just need to either multiply that by 7, that number of classes in the MAG, or 8, the number of classes in MASM. You’re looking at a range of between $46,000 and $55,000 investment into the program.

Any additional things that you’d have to pay for would be obviously books, but a lot of the books are really available, either you rent, buy used books, it really doesn’t really come to a lot of money for books, where I remember when I was in school that wasn’t possible, everyone had to buy a new book and it was impossible to re-sell it. Things have really made great improvements in terms of books and material. Then additionally the application fee. Currently the application fee is $85, it will increase to $90 starting July 1st. Those would be the only things. If you wanted to make further investments to your computer, but as long as everyone has a computer that has access to a webcam, which are available on most computers, because sometimes you’ll be doing project where you’ll need that capability. We have another question, I think maybe Dr. Shannon could address this, that looking at what fantastic program this, what kinds of research opportunities are available to students that are enrolled in the program?

George Shannon: First of all master students work as assistants in many cases to help us when we’re teaching the class. That gives you an opportunity to learn and to work with other students and to develop your ideas about where you might want to take this career. We have classes as I said before … For example, I’m right now teaching a class in sociology of aging and a class in aging policy. We have graduates who work, for example, the SCAN Foundation, vice president of aging policy. We have people who go to Washington and work in foundations and places like John Hopkins University. You can learn that. You can work, take classes with an eye to developing your skills for case management as someone suggested earlier.

There are any number of opportunities. You can also upon finishing your degree think about either going into a PhD program, which many people do. I can think of a half a dozen master students who graduate from the program who are now doctors, physicians, and in addition to doctors, PhDs. It really gives you an opportunity, if you know where you’re going you can pretty much be counseled to take the classes they are going to and do the research that will work towards your particular interest. To get back to the actual question about research opportunities, they do exist. I have, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 master students that work with me on different projects, including my institute for regenerative life science.

Every professor in the school has his or her own lab. There are opportunities there. In terms of working online, I think the possibilities are limited in the sense that you can’t go into a lab and work there, but I do think that there are opportunities to do extra credit or scholarly papers that you can work on and develop your skills. Yes, there are opportunities. When you’re working online the opportunities are different from what they would be if you were here in school, but the opportunity still exist to help you to develop your writing skills and to find that specific area that you want to pursue in terms of a long term career.

Jami O’Connell: Thank you so much Dr. Shannon. It looks like we’ve answered most, if not all, the questions. If we haven’t we’ll follow up with you within the next week. That really concludes our Q&A for today. I wanted to thank Dr. Shannon for your time, for sharing this really fascinating research with us. I want to thank all of you on the webinar for joining us today and really submitting some really thoughtful questions.

If you have any questions or are interest learning more about the program or applying to the program, certainly reach out to me. My contact information is listed here for your convenience, my phone number and email. A lot of you probably have it because I emailed you something right prior to the webinar. This presentation has been recorded and we certainly email you shortly with the link to the recording as well. On behalf of Dr. Shannon and myself we certainly appreciate your time. This concludes today’s seminar. Again much thanks for your attendance. Have yourself a wonderful day.

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