Older Artists of Germany

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“Grow Old Along With Me. . .”
What the older artists of Germany have to teach us about creating long lives full of passion

Wally Warning, 69, is one of Munich’s most popular singer/songwriters.  A native of Aruba, his high octane concerts of Caribbean soul and Reggae are regularly sold out. Yet, a year ago he was paralyzed from the neck down with the rare disease GBS (Guillain-Barré syndrome). Today, he is back performing, a bit slower, but with a renewed sense of purpose.

I am seeing things in life with my music that are much better. Things like the lyrics in the song I did it on my first album, Promises. . . The first version is nice, you dance, you're having a good time, but the lyrics don't go deeply enough into you. But, the second version, you don't dance, the lyrics go deep and it lives longer and it gives people pause, gives people hope. I'm thankful for my age because I see things much clearer that I didn't see when I was twenty.

What is the wisdom of aging? Do older artists age differently from the rest of the population? These are the questions American researcher and artist, Stuart Kandell, asked in his study of Germany’s older artists. Sponsored by a Fulbright grant, Kandell, 68, spent two months in Germany last fall.  He interviewed 23 artists from ages 60-83 and watched them work and rehearse. The artists ranged from painters, sculptors, blues singers, musicians, actors, directors, dancers and writers. Most had practiced art throughout their lives and some rekindled a youthful interest in retirement. Kandell’s survey is part of a world-wide study he is doing on the impact of arts participation in the lives of older adults and their communities. Does practicing art help older adults deal with illness, feel less isolated, have greater meaning and purpose in their lives, and provide opportunity to give back to other generations? The German artists are very articulate about the way art helps them see their aging in a different way.

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Erica Fischer, 74, has been a journalist, novelist and ardent feminist all her life. Born in Vienna, she considers Berlin “home.” With the success of “Aimee and Jaguar” in 1995, she continues writing and translating full time.

With age, one becomes more relaxed. . . I am no longer a victim of sexual harassment and this is extremely liberating. I go to my fitness club and I wear my old trousers and tee shirt and am surrounded by muscular men and I couldn't care less. . . When you are fifty it is painful not to be seen. But then, not to be seen is also an advantage. You can be yourself. But I still wish to be seen as a writer. Very important. I have this sense of great freedom.

Julia Scarlet Lindig, 63, has been acting since childhood in Cologne. She then toured the world at 17, and went on to perform on stage, in television and films. With her move to Berlin she began doing puppet shows and today works with poor communities around the world.

When art is in your life, art talks to you. . . when you wake up, when you have time, when you are relaxed and think of something else, art says ‘Would you write this down?’ ‘Would you do this?’ In the younger years, it is a lot of self consciousness: are you good enough, are you pretty enough, are you this and that. This affects a lot of your brain and heart work. . . What I do now: if no one looks, it's ok. If no one talks about it, it's ok. . . I just need the time and this makes me completely really happy.


Matthias Koeppel celebrated his 80th birthday with his wife Sooki at a retrospective exhibit in Berlin, where he has lived since the War. He is one of Germany’s foremost painters.

There are some advantages that you have over younger people. . . Suddenly elements come in that I couldn't have predicted. I would have said ‘That's cool, but it has to go away because it doesn't belong in this picture.’ Today, as a wise old man, I would say ‘That's wonderful, let it stay there.’ It doesn't matter what the people say about it. And this conflict happens only between me and the picture. People realize nothing. Then they say ‘Maybe the old guy is getting a little relaxed in his old age.’

What distinguishes these artists from many other people their age is their passion for life. Percussionist Tividar Nemisi, 61, says it best: “Creativity and joy in life keeps you going. You can make music until you fall over.” And when these artists do “fall over” and deal with serious health challenges, they get up faster. When Wally Warning was paralyzed in the hospital, he wrote a song and had the orderly write the lyrics. While actor Johannes Storks, 63, recovered from a heart attack, he couldn’t wait to perform. “It's like a therapy to get the applause. To feel that I am still alive.”

The fact that most of the artists grew up in the post war, a time of enormous poverty, challenge and change, yet chose a path of art ---  says a lot about power of German culture and the individual strength of people to chose “the road less traveled.”

Others waited until they were near retirement to pursue a new career in the arts. Nikolas Strathenwerth, 64, began dancing tango in his fifties, “in the third part of my life.” Ron Bird, 76, a sailor who started his singing career in his fifties says "The hardest part is throwing off the lines. It's not the sailing, it's just getting started.”

These artists are living examples of the power of arts in navigating the waters of old age with grace, passion, connection, and meaning.


Stuart Kandell, Ph.D.

This article was written for the German magazine Kubia Spring 2018




Keepers of Culture: Older Artists in Vietnam and Cambodia


“Where can I find older artists in Vietnam?” I ask the Cultural Director for UNESCO in Hanoi. Two hours later I am in the Old Quarter in search of the Ca Tru Club. Here I hope to find their founder, Ms. Lei Thi Bach Van performing. At sixty, she is considered by many a “hero” for single handedly saving an ancient art form. I am here spending six weeks in Vietnam and Cambodia on a research mission to study the impact of the arts on the lives of older artists and their cultures.

I step hesitantly off the curb to cross the street into the sea of chaos that is modern day Hanoi: 8 million people and 5 million motorbikes. You have to keep walking and not dare stop until you are safe on the other side. I walk past the outdoor markets, the hustle of food vendors, the sizzling smell of meat on a grill, clothing vendors hawking knock off name brands, noisy streets filled with young people drinking beer. Nobody is over thirty.

A right turn, and I am at the Ca Tru Temple. I leave the traffic, noise and all of modern day Hanoi behind. I step into the past of a serenely quiet courtyard filled with caged birds and ancient instruments. Shortly, I am seated in the front row with ten other tourists. Exactly at 8:00pm, the performance begins and a stunningly beautiful woman dressed in long black velveteen appears and begins singing to the sounds of the instruments. It is Ms. Lei Thi Bach Van. Time stops.

“When I heard that kind of voice and song I fell in love. . . this kind of art is very beautiful because it comes from the poem” she tells me the next morning. Ca Tru is an ancient genre of chamber music of Vietnam formed in the late 15th century. It combines music and poetry and was performed at the royal court. Yet under the Communist insurgency, Ca Tru was made illegal in the mid 1940’s. People caught performing it risked jail or being “blacklisted.”

Bach Van has been singing since she was 5 years old. As a young adult in the early 1980’s, she discovered Ca Tru and has dedicated her life to preserving it ever since. Initially she encountered great resistance. It had been outlawed for many years and the older adults who knew the music were very resistant to teach her.

“When I go the provinces and meet those kind of people, they try to deny. They say that they don't know. It is hard because the society doesn't respect that kind of art. I have to find a way to talk to the families many many times, back and forth, back and forth, getting relationship with the families and have the families adopt me as a daughter.”

To bring Ca Tru to a younger generation, Bach Van established the Hanoi Ca Tru Club in 1991, with over 200 members, becoming the first one in Vietnam.

“I want to share with the young people. It's really hard to find the audience and hard to find the right singers who are talented enough to observe, to learn and study this kind of art. The young people who are involved in this kind of art have to be the people who love the country, love the music. The nation needs to support them.”

Thanks entirely to her efforts, UNESCO has recognized the music as an “intangible cultural heritage.” And for her great contributions she was awarded the title of “Meritorious Artist” and is considered by many “a hero.”

A week later I am invited to interview her at her home. Climbing rickety stairs above a vegetable shop, I see another side: that of an artist who has struggled all her life, selling fruit, being black listed, contributing her own money to support the Club and performances.

“This kind of music is hard to earn money because you have to find the right audience.  The young people pay more attention to songs that are easier to learn and other kinds of music will help them earn more money. The Vietnamese people still do not know very much about this. That's why my dream has not come true yet.”

Pursuing a dream is a luxury for most older adults in Vietnam and Cambodia. In all my travels I rarely saw any people over 60. Later I learned that most live in rural areas, continue to work in the fields and stay with their families, recieving little or no pension. The older artists that I met --- painters, musicians and dancers --- live in cities where they can continue to practice their lifetime endeavors. Like Ms. Bach Van, their dreams are to save the art forms that they grew up with from disappearing. They draw from the rich melange of cultures that are the ironic byproduct of domination by many other countries. These people have survived wars, genocide and enormous poverty for much of the past century.  It has decimated cultural ruins and made the practice of certain “traditional” arts illegal and dangerous. Throughout it all their art has been a bulwark of meaning, joy and endurance. Now, as older artists their art helps them survive economically and expand their social contacts. Most important, it provides a reason for them to get up in the morning and encounter the challenges of daily life with renewed purpose and strength.

Stuart Kandell

To read a more thorough article on the research I did there click here. 





Art and Aging Grows Up in the U.S.

The year was 1979. Susan Perlstein walked into a senior center in New York City to begin a theater class. Three thousand miles away, Stuart Kandell began teaching an acting class at a senior center in Oakland, California. Little did they know that they were on the cusp of a movement that would eventually grow into a way of life for many older Americans.

Read the entire article published in the German Cultural Spaces Magazine here.



An Old Europe Wakes Up

“Living standards will be affected. . .”

“Markets worry about fiscal sustainability. . .”

“How will our economies and societies respond?”

Is this the introduction to the latest disaster film? The Greek debt crisis? A global pandemic?

No. It’s a description of the impact of population aging in Europe, The continent is waking up to their demography of being among the highest regions in the world with an older population. Old people are a problem that must be dealt with. No wonder the major service organization in London used to be called “Age Concern”.

In the United States we feared the “Silver Tsunami” twenty and thirty years ago. We worried that old people would rob future generations and bring the government, social and healthcare services to a grinding halt.

That disaster script hasn’t played itself out. Instead, we’ve found new ways to frame the impact of the “Age Wave”. Baby boomers are redefining what it means to retire, refire and continue to give back. The oldest old are redefining how to continue to live productive, healthy lives at 80, 90 and 100. “Lifelong learning” is now a more accepted concept.

And an important part of that is the role the arts play in the aging process. Arts programs are spreading like wildfire offering older adults opportunities to be creative, learn new skills, stay healthy, make friends and give back to other generations. Stagebridge is the oldest of over 800 “senior theatres” in the U.S. Dance programs are demonstrating their efficacy in staving off Alzheimer's and helping people with Parkinson's. And the National Center for Creative Aging is now a major policy, research and program hub for thousands of programs across the country.

Yet, in an “old Europe” many older adults are retiring to lives of sitting in cafes, “telly” watching and limited activity. Perhaps there is less pressure than there is in the U.S. for older adults to be “useful” and “productive.” In rural areas, there is often no retirement. Pensions are barely enough to get by on.

Despite their long, rich cultural heritage, Europe has been incredibly slow to recognize the significant role that the arts can have throughout a lifetime, particularly in the last third of life. More recently, there has finally been an awakening to the potential of this work with growing numbers of programs, especially in dance and music becoming available to elders. And these have begun to spread throughout the developed countries of Europe.

That is why the European Theatre Convention (ETC) convened a “Theatre and Ageing” Conference April 16-19 in Timisoara, Romania; and the European Union convened “Long, Live Arts” in The Hague, May 20-22. The ETC is an organization of forty theatre companies across Europe who decided it was time to address this pressing problem and commissioned eight theatre companies to produce four joint productions around some topic of aging. I was the only non European invited to present a workshop on how to involve older adults in the performing arts and inform participants about the scope of activity that is happening across the United States. The theatre productions were limited in their scope: only one actually featured older actors and really addressed issues of aging. My workshop was well attended and there was a lot of interest in the concept of theatres of, by and for older adults, like Stagebridge, which are clearly an anomaly to the European theatre community who rarely offer classes for older adults. In the workshop, I spent most of my time doing exercises that helped participants get in touch with their own feelings about aging --- because this is where we need to start. The response was quite positive and the press release after the conference began with my mantra: “It’s not about them. It’s about us.”

The “Long, Live Arts” conference in Holland  was much broader in scope, bringing together 400 participants from 14 countries with 50 workshops and presentations celebrating older people and culture. Even former Queen Beatrix of Holland, now 77, attended. Presentations ranged from dance with older Somali men in London’s East End; to the 35 year old Theatre of Experience featuring older actors in Berlin; to a young artist who gives cameras to older adults in Amsterdam to document their lives; and an intergenerational musical theatre troupe that tours retirement homes with a show about being older and LGBT. With my colleague and Artful Aging Associates partner, Susan Perlstein, (who gave the keynote address), we presented two well attended workshops. Once again, we were the only non Europeans invited and our workshops gave participants an expanded world view of what is possible with arts and older adults and received a lot of positive feedback.

There are certainly barriers towards delivering arts programming to older adults. Many older adults around the world, and particularly in less developed countries of Europe are struggling just to survive. When I asked a Romanian actress if she knew of any arts and aging programs, she shook her head. “The old people here don’t have the money and are just concerned about their survival.” Public pensions are barely or not enough for most older adults to live on. They are forced to keep working or rely on their children for support.

And there aren’t the social institutions for seniors  that we have in the United States or developed countries in Europe. In my limited time touring Romania and Albania, the only “senior centers” I came across were in the parks, where predominantly old men played dominoes, chess, and drank coffee (while the women presumably worked at home or in the fields). And when elders are ill, they are often cared for by their families. I stayed at an Airbnb apartment in Tirana, the capital of Albania, owned by a 25 year old architect, who was living with his 90 year old grandmother who had Parkinson's.

In a Europe where adults are retiring at 55, 60 or 65 and living to 100, it is clearly time to rethink the meaning and purpose of “old age.” It is time now to shift the European headlines about aging from “problem” to “potential” and “possibility”. Employing their rich cultural heritage as a vital part of the lives of its older citizens will go a long way towards solving this “problem” and “concern” and create a more liveable and meaning - full world for everyone.

Stuart Kandell




A Report on the Long Live Arts EU Conference

LONG LIVE ARTS; Cultural Participation by Older People

EU Conference  May 20-22, 2015                                                                      

The Hague, Netherlands

Wednesday May 20, 2015 

I arrived at the Mercure Hotel - blurry eyed and half asleep.  After settling in, David Cutler from the Baring Foundation, a supporter of the Long Live Arts Conference, and I walked across a large open square bordered by two theaters, City Hall, whimsical sculpture, hundreds of bikes and bikers zipping across the square. I was not sure how to walk across the plaza without risking my life to a bike. We reached Den Haag City Hall, a majestic white modern office building designed by American architect, Richard Meier. This was not the Hague that I remembered from 1983, the last time that I visited Holland. Now Den Haag is a growing metropolis of old and new.

At City Hall, in a small conference room, the policy group met. I was fortunate to be there to hear about the recent changes in policy from the countries represented in the EU.  Basically, the EU has been under economic pressure to reduce its spending and government has looked to cut funds to aging and to the arts. The first speaker from Den Haag put it simply.  “We have been used to the government supporting all social and cultural services. Now we will have to look to public/private partnerships as other countries have done.” 

Interest in creative aging has developed over the past few years. The Bealtaine Festival in Ireland has helped galvanize and inspire countries to celebrate their heritage as older people share their stories and their art with others. The United Kingdom has fostered large projects for healthy aging across the aging continuum.

In summary, participants wanted to address the need for a central data location for research, practice and policies. The EU policy leaders were mandated to create a Cultural Manifesto for the next EU Conference to be in Brussels next year and will be working on this document over the next year.

That evening we gathered at the Cafe Pavlov for drinks and snacks. It was our first opportunity to get to know each other. 

Thursday May 21, 2015

You could feel the excitement and curiosity as people gathered at the theater in its modern open lobby space. I found my way to the stage to set up, while the Surinam women singers rehearsed their opening song. Hedy D’Ancona, the elder Ambassador for the Long Live Arts Partnership in Europe and former Minister of Culture and Member of the EU Parliament was the MC for the Conference. In her warm, witty style, she welcomed everyone and reviewed the plans for the two days. Each keynote speaker was introduced by their favorite music. I was delighted to open the conference with “Dancing in the Streets.” Participants enthusiastically listened to news from the WHCOA mini conference on arts and aging, NCCA Creative Age Conference and to hear about creativity and aging in the United States. Bob Collins, Chair of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, gave a thoughtful talk about the importance of culture from caveman to the present. Andreas Kruse, a German music professor, played Bach on the piano, and spoke about the aging brain and arts. 

We, then, split into workshop sessions. Workshops focused on research, practice, and policy and crossing borders. I wish that I could have been at all the workshops at the same time. I attended three afternoon workshops. TANDEM partnership establishes long-term projects between cultural organizations in the field of community arts. For example, Equal Arts from Gateshead, UK and Arts in Care Foundation from Amsterdam, NL are now at 52 places in the Netherlands and UK, bringing creative arts into care homes. The next workshop I attended highlighted an intergenerational visual arts project in a care home in the Netherlands. The artist discovered how to work with the staff residents and community, producing an extraordinary book of the stories across generations. 

The next workshop that I attended was called Aging Well - Creative Engagement Tools. Encounter Arts designed an inventive, innovative community project that surveyed needs of older people in the community of Torbay, UK. They opened up public conversation by placing “Aging Well” sofas, table, and a creative arts survey form on the table.  They discovered what was important to the people of Torbay regarding creative activities for older people in their community this project won the national UK lottery (6 million euros) to implement the results over the next six years!

After the workshops, all participants gathered for the celebration by older performers, musicians, storytellers and intergenerational choral in the theater. Princess Beatrix of the Netherlands was a guest. Gabbi Masters, the conference coordinator, and I walked the Princess into the theater. Yes, I had the honor and pleasure of escorting Princess Beatrix to a front row seat and chatting about creative aging with her. 

Friday, May 22, 2015

Field trips were arranged for the morning. They included theater residencies, music school programs, film showing, dance for health classes, and museum programs - all focusing on older adults.

The Gemeentemuseum invited participants to better understand late life work of artists, Monet and Modrian and to learn about how they reached out to older adults. I loved learning about the late works of artists and then seeing their arts-in-education program. 

How arts serve the baby boomers in the US.

In the afternoon, Stuart Kandell founder of Stagebridge Theater and former NCCA Board member, and I presented on United States programs engaging baby boomers. We spoke about older adult learning principles and described best practice in lifelong learning and engaged participants in how to find story through sense memory. Participants included funders, policy makers, artists, art organizations, and health care organizations.

I was surprised to discover that in general, teaching artists were not trained before entering a project. The NCCA on-line artist training may now have more EU participation. It seems that artists and organizations apply for funding and are awarded support by the review committee who are just learning about the field.

Arts and Health Care Models across the US

Stuart and I conducted a workshop on best practice in arts and health care. The main question raised by the participants focused on involvement with Age Friendly communities anyhow to bring arts into the homes of older people. Many EU cultural organizations are part of the United Nations WHO initiative for age friendly communities. We were able to give examples of how to reach into homes with legacy works model.

The conference came to a close announcing the NCCA The Creative Age International Conference in 2016. The ambassadors to the NCCA conference from Europe reported about their experience. Mia emphasized the importance of public private partnerships as EU government funding decreases to arts and aging programs. A US film on Agism and Creative Aging was shown and then a slide show review of the Long Live Arts Conference. A great warm and welcoming exchange took place. Next steps included deepening partnerships between EU countries with programs, research and policy and gathering next year at the Long Live Arts Conference in Brussels, Belgium and joining the NCCA convening in Washington, DC. 

By the end, I had been transformed and felt how fortunate I am to have pursued my interests in life story and passing on of our histories and cultures. Gratitude to all those present and back in the United States for having embraced creative aging.

We are helping to make the world a better place to grow old in.

I look forward to growing our EU partnership.

Best regards, Susan