Itzhak Perlman

Seniors meet with Israeli violinist and conductor Itzhak Perlman (left). (Baltimore Sun / April 8, 2014)

If it wasn't for the large, well-equipped woodworking shop at the Broadmead retirement community in Cockeysville, Lawrence Schneider might never have embarked upon his third career as a sculptor.

But when Schneider moved into the Hunt Valley community 10 years ago, he found an extensive studio for residents featuring a top-notch table saw, a large lathe and a floor-to-ceiling vacuum to suck up the dust. He also discovered his longtime hobby had aesthetic merit.

"Previously, I never thought of what I was doing as art," the 79-year-old said. "But I started getting feedback from some of the other residents who are involved in the visual art community. They gave me a lot of support and encouraged me to take my wood-working seriously."

Now, Schneider's sculptures fetch up to four figures. Two are displayed in a maternity ward in a St. Louis hospital.

Nor is he the only older adult to discover that moving into a retirement community can provide greater access to the arts than he previously enjoyed. Baltimore's senior retirement villages and its arts groups are putting an increased focus on providing in-depth experiences in music, theater, the visual arts and dance.

And why not? This age group enjoys the most leisure time and the fewest distractions.

These include activities in which even adults with dementia can participate, including a bus trip to Washington's annual National Cherry Blossom Festival and Wednesday night entertainment at Roland Park Place featuring a harpist or dance troupe.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra offers a "Road Scholar" program that recently brought together two dozen seniors from around the United States for a three-day immersion program offering behind-the-scenes-glimpses of the workings of a major orchestra. The seniors attended a rehearsal led by famed Israeli violinist and conductor Itzhak Perlman, had lunch with symphony musicians and discussed the intricacies of planning a musical season with a symphony administrator.

And during a half-day session of "Camp Hippodrome" last summer, senior citizens donned costumes and applied stage makeup before performing a song-and-dance routine from "Damn Yankees" for staff members of the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center.

"It's such a fun, heartwarming day," said Olive Waxter, director of the Hippodrome Foundation, adding that another such event is being planned for this summer. "It's a chance to be on the Hippodrome stage as a performer, and the seniors really have a ball."

It's important that older adults regularly flex their creative muscles, according to retirement center administrators, whether by enjoying a performance, refinishing chairs in the woodworking shop, throwing a pot or taking a film course.

"Creativity is so important for aging appropriately," said Linda Chick, Broadmead's director of community services.

"Studies have shown that not just physical fitness but mental fitness helps people age better, and that's more than just doing crossword puzzles," Chick said. "The creative part of the brain keeps our residents social and active and engaged. It may not stop dementia, but it definitely delays the onset for several years."

That's why Marie Tassone, the event planning coordinator for Roland Park Place, takes pains to make sure that all residents have at least one activity day that stretches their minds, even those in wheelchairs or encumbered by oxygen tanks or with a tendency to wander off. That can mean attending an in-house jazz performance or taking a bus tour through historic Baltimore sites.

"Our buses can accommodate up to two wheelchairs," she said. "It's important to us that we offer trips to all our residents, not just those who can live independently."

Dick Spero, who coordinates the BSO on the Go for Seniors program that operates out of the Music Center at Strathmore, came up with his own yardstick for measuring the success of the concerts that Baltimore Symphony musicians perform at area nursing homes and senior centers.

"Some of these people are challenged in one way or another, and you can't always infer whether they're responding by looking at their faces," he said. "I have my own litmus test. I look at their feet. I can very often see that they're tapping out the rhythm, and that tells me all I need to know."

The arts groups say the benefits go both ways.

Maggie Dixon, 23, is studying for her master's degree in violin performance at the Peabody Institute. She's also the senior coordinator of The Creative Access, an all-volunteer program that sends aspiring opera singers and musicians into area senior centers, hospitals and nursing homes to perform.

This school year, a few hundred Peabody students will perform about 80 free concerts.

Dixon said the students are eager to volunteer for the concerts so they can fine-tune performance skills.

"This is a great way to bring the repertoire we've spent hours and hours practicing in little rooms out in front of a live audience," she said. "We need to practice performing as much as we need to practice the notes. We even need to practice getting nervous."

Dixon said the audience interaction at these concerts can remind the student performers of what they love about their chosen art form.

"Performing live is so intimate and special," she said. "For some people in the audience, it's therapeutic, because it's the only way now that they can experience a live concert. We've seen people who have tears in their eyes after a performance of a piece of music that they've never heard before."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com