Romance. Watercolor by Kathi Baron

With careful, detailed brushstrokes, Kathi Baron explores the humanity she encounters along her worldly travels with her husband. An elderly man in Vietnam eats lunch on his work break. Another carries flowers to a loved one. They are connected by the thread of age and, despite being in different parts of the world, each image asks viewers to consider their own aging journey.

Honoring Elders is the newest installation of the Open Doors: Art in Action series which combines art with advocacy for social, environmental and justice issues. Baron’s paintings are inspired by photos she’s taken of people working to sell their wares, or simply sitting and chatting with friends. No matter the activity, the subjects seem to be involved in their community in one way or another.

In her travels, she came across several Blue Zones described by New York Times bestselling author Dan Buettner in his books. These zones—Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; and Loma Linda, California—are considered to be the world’s happiest places where people live the longest.

“He’s identified the things that seem to be consistent about all those cultures, and a lot of times they’re involved, they have purpose, they eat right, they exercise,” Baron says. “I think most of it is they feel a sense of purpose and of belonging. They’re not in rest homes; they’re included in their communities or their families.”

She sees a stark difference in the way the elderly population is treated in the United States as many children move away from their families after college and aging parents are left alone. Hospice centers provide care for people at the end of life, but that isn’t synonymous with the end of living and creating new memories.

“We give them activities to do and it may be a small community, but we have that little community with our caregivers and volunteers in our houses where people can have a purpose,” says Kathy Simmons, CEO of Northland Hospice.

While Baron, 73, found her purpose early in life as an English teacher and taught full-time for more than four decades before her current part-time status at Flagstaff High School, she knew it wasn’t something she’d be able to do forever. She began taking classes at Coconino Community College to learn how to paint when she was in her 50s, following in the footprints of her late mother.

“I thought, what happens when I don’t have words anymore?” she says. “When I lose words, I still have images, so I’ll paint images and I’ll do that until my arm doesn’t work anymore. I’ve just always loved watercolor, I think it’s so magical. Sometimes you’ll put a puddle of water down and put some color in and it just does what it wants to do so you kind of dance with the medium.”

Each painting is paired with a question. One asks, “In what ways do romance and sexuality evolve into the 60s and beyond?” Another, “In what ways can elders’ voices be heard, beyond their own social gatherings, so that valuable wisdom and life experience are passed down to a culture’s younger generations?”

Baron says she looked at some of the benefits elders in Blue Zones enjoy when coming up with these questions.

For most of us, old age is inevitable. As the population of those 65 and older grows in the U.S., the census projects it will far outpace overall population growth. Family members placed in hospice care or assisted living homes still need a place to be social and carry on their day-to-day lives as their facilities slow down. Besides providing palliative care services, Northland Hospice also offers support groups for all people who have experienced loss, whether from suicide or natural causes.

“Certainly not everyone that has a loss had their loved one in hospice, but we don’t want these people to be without services,” says Joan Joyce, clinical director at Northland.

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To keep these services accessible to those in need, no matter their financial situation, the nonprofit will host Heart to Heart: A Fundraiser for Northland Hospice Patient Assistance on Feb. 15, which will feature a talk from Lita Nelson of the Area Agency on Aging; Michelle Lytle, program coordinator for Northern Arizona University’s Retired Senior Volunteer Program; Raena Honan of Coconino County Community Services; Danh Gillette and Rose Toehe who will speak on Hopi and Navajo traditions to honor elders; and more.

Simmons will also share more on the services Northland Hospice provides as well as volunteer opportunities.

“My vision for Art in Action is that very thing, helping people see where they can get involved in their community in some sort of social justice aspect, some way that will inspire them to connect with the organizations that are doing the work that needs to be done,” says Sue Norris, committee chair for Art in Action.

As long as there are family members and other participants within a strong community, there’s no reason old age should be thought of as the end of experiencing life fully.

“I’m hoping that people will come, not just the elderly, but that people will come and kind of confront the issue for themselves and for their families because everybody has somebody that is aging,” Norris says.

Honoring Elders is on display at the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany, 423 N. Beaver St., through March 18. Admission is free and regular exhibit hours are Tuesday-Friday from 9 a.m.-noon and 1-4 p.m. and Sunday from 8 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Heart to Heart:  A Fundraiser for Northland Hospice Patient Assistance will be held Friday, Feb. 15, from 6-8 p.m. and will feature speakers, refreshments and live music. There will also be a special presentation by Shonto Begay on Friday, March 1, from 6-8 p.m.

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