July 17, 2000 -- When Nona Bingham of Portland, Ore., retired from her job as a supermarket clerk at age 65, she enrolled in oil painting and ceramic classes to keep busy. "But that didn't do it for me," says Bingham, a self-described workaholic.
So she joined an acting group for senior citizens at a local community center and threw herself into rehearsals and tap dancing lessons. The group's first production, a variety show, drew an audience of four people. Now, 20 years later, her Northwest Senior Theatre troupe travels nationwide and draws audiences of 5,000 people.
"I got another life out of this," says Bingham, who now tap dances and performs comedy. At age 85, she's not quite the oldest in her troupe -- performers' ages range from 59 to 89.
Senior theater groups are booming, with more than 200 in operation across the United States, and others starting up, says Bonnie Vorenberg, an expert in gerontology and theater in Portland, who has written a book, Senior Theatre Connections: The First Directory of Senior Theatre Performing Groups, Professionals, and Resources. The names of some of the groups hint at their underlying liveliness and sense of humor: Geritol Frolics, The Seasoned Performers, Extended Run Players.
As people live longer, they're often looking for ways to add quality to their lives, says Vorenberg, who started the Northwest Senior Theatre group. "Creativity and the arts are where quality of life comes from," she says.
Vorenberg has worked with a variety of elders, ranging from frail, confused nursing home patients to active seniors like Bingham. Although she says no studies have formally evaluated the benefits of senior theater, her informal surveys find that participants gain mentally, physically, and socially. Theater involvement "is better than a trip to the doctor," says Vorenberg. "You may not feel well before a performance, but you'll be high afterwards."
Production formats run the gamut, from oral history to variety shows, from issue-oriented plays to intergenerational productions. Participants are as likely to exercise their brains as their legs, making new friends at the same time. Warming up, singing, dancing, and acting all work different muscles while they improve lung capacity. "I exercise more [on stage] than if I go to the gym," says Bingham. For the camera-shy, there are ample behind-the-scenes opportunities: lighting, prop, costume, or promotional work that demand the same interplay of physical activity, mental quickness, and social interaction.
The Health Perks
Numerous studies reinforce the health benefits of this interplay.For instance, a poor or limited social network increases the risk of dementia by 60%, according to a study published April 13, 2000, in The Lancet. In addition, seniors who exercise suffer fewer falls, less depression, and reduced pain, according to a report in the March 2000 issue of the Journal of the American Geriatric Society. And the January 5, 1995 issue of the journal Physiology and Behavior reports that exercise decreases tension and boosts self-esteem. Such findings "can be extrapolated to what I see in theater," says Vorenberg.
There is also the benefit of "perspective." Many seniors have some kind of health condition that requires medications or doctor visits. "Being in a show forces them to look beyond their own problems," says Vorenberg. Suddenly, learning lines becomes more important -- and a more frequent focus of the conversation -- than arthritis complaints.
Even very frail people in nursing homes feel better after singing and moving. Seniors often report that their theater involvement helped them get off antidepressants or blood pressure medications, according to Ann McDonough, PhD, director of gerontology at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, who wrote the anthology The Golden Stage: Dramatic Activities for Older Adults. Before considering such a move, however, your doctor must be consulted, says McDonough.
The Human Touch
Seniors say that the greatest benefits of theater-based activities are the improved interpersonal connections, especially since many live alone. "I've made lots of friends," says Bingham. "We all feel the same way -- this adds quality to our lives."
Social bonds develop among people working together as a group. Being in a theater troupe makes you feel needed. "It's like the fourth person in bridge -- people depend on you," says Vorenberg. And hearing an audience applaud, of course, is a great thrill and morale booster.
Breaking Down Barriers
Sometimes senior theater can even break down stereotypes and lead to intergenerational understanding and friendship. At the University of Nevada, seniors perform with college students. The older actors say it invigorates them to work with the younger folks, says McDonough, who has seen the senior theater program grow from just 18 people 10 years ago to 87 now. The younger participants say it puts an end to their biases about aging; for instance, they learn that many older adults can, in fact, memorize very well.
And when young college students see someone like Nona Bingham tap dance and laugh her way through a production, they might just discard a few more notions of what it's like to grow old in America.
Carol Potera is a journalist from Great Falls, Mont., who writes for WebMD, Shape magazine, and other publications.