Ellen O’Shea, the art instructor at The Fountains at Millbrook, spent most of her career teaching art to children in the Wappingers Central School District. “My joke is,” she says, “I spent all these years getting ready for The Fountains.” In the first five minutes of speaking with Ellen, it is clear how much she loves her job. She continues, “I didn’t really know if it was going to work, because my plan was to get back into teaching children. But once I started working with these older people, it just made me so happy.”
The retirement community is situated on 200 acres of wooded area in the heart of the Hudson Valley. The programming staff makes a tremendous effort to ensure that residents are “never bored,” as Del Snook, a resident and portrait artist, puts it. When asked to describe his average day, Snook replies with a touch of confusion, noting, “Average day? Well, I’m not really sure if we have an average day.”
When O’Shea begins working with a new resident, her aim is to identify their strengths and interests.
“Del is such a self-made artist. And the way he does the face. I love it,” she enthuses.
When she discovered that Snook preferred to work from his apartment as opposed to the designated art studio, she began to schedule private critiques with him. One of his most successful paintings is a portrait of the painter Édouard Manet, from whom he draws inspiration in his own work.
Most of the art students at The Fountains work in the studio room, where they have access to a range of materials. There, they convene to discuss their work with one another, and look to O’Shea as “their biggest cheerleader.” In addition to the studio classes, many of these artists take courses in art history.
O’Shea’s philosophy—and really, the philosophy that defines the culture at The Fountains—is that one is never too old to seriously invest in their interests and abilities.
“Art is one of approximately 300 programs a month,” says Lisa Rieckermann, the Community Life Director of the living community. “We offer everything from opera [taught by] a Ph.D. music professor to art history, and we have a professional woodcarving instructor. There is art on every floor of this community that is all done by the residents.”
Woodcarving is a favorite activity of Len Weiss, another resident who speaks highly of the programming at The Fountains. He adds, “More often than not, you have to make a decision about what you’re going to do—A, B, or C—because there is so much going on.” This is confirmed by the residence’s newsletters and events calendar. The activities, ranging from art shows to gardening to exercise, almost don’t fit on the sheet of paper on which they’re printed.
Ultimately, seniors and their families must determine the best living situation for their particular lifestyle, and many in this age bracket flinch when they hear the words “retirement community.” However, The Fountains at Millbrook exists as a counterbalance to the negative stereotypes of such communities.
“It is not too late,” O’Shea observes of individuals’ creative potential. In one case, she worked with a woman named Connie who lived well into her 100s. Connie began her art practice at age 98, rendering countless portraits, including many of O’Shea herself. “She constantly was doing drawings. We did a show of her work a couple years ago. All portraits of people in the class, they were so wonderful.” At The Fountains, the saying “It’s never too late to pursue your passion!” is truly more than just a platitude.
For more information about the residence, visit its website, which includes a comprehensive description of life at The Fountains as well as testimonials from residents and their families.