"I refuse to be old," she says. "I don't mind aging, but I will never be old."
Smith-Fortier, 69, is an actress who was a regular on General Hospital for three years and starred in the first movie version of Sparkle as well as The Concorde ... Airport '79. She had spent five years helping her husband, a former L.A. firefighter, recover from a stroke.
They were ready to get rid of the big house, but both also wanted to remain active. Then she saw an ad — for the Burbank Senior Artists Colony. And her life has been a whirlwind of activity since.
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Now her days consist of Zumba, classes, rehearsals for the plays at the on-site professional theater company, acting classes. Her husband, who was also a songwriter, uses the gym every morning.
"It's just real busy," she says. "There are computer classes. There are filmmaking classes. There's how to use your iPad to make films. It's really an active building, but not the kind of activity where you are overwhelmed. You do what you feel like doing."
WHERE THE FUN IS
The Burbank Senior Artists Colony is one of three revolutionary housing concepts for senior housing built by John Huskey, president of Los Angeles-based Meta Housing. Huskey partnered with Tim Carpenter, founder and executive director of EngAge, to conceive and design the buildings. EngAge is a non-profit dedicated to providing arts, wellness and life-long earnings programs for seniors.
The Burbank colony, completed in 2004, is the flagship. It houses a professional theater group. It has 141 apartments. The North Hollywood Senior Arts Colony has 126 apartments. Another in Long Beach houses 200. All the units are rentals. Huskey says several more projects are on the way.
Huskey says sites they are considering for future senior ar! ts colonies include Minneapolis/St. Paul; Portland, Ore.; San Francisco; and St. Louis.
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Seniors interested in moving must submit an application to a selection committee, including a letter that outlines their interest in the arts. You could be a professional artist or actor, or you could be someone who's always wanted to be. Or you could be a longtime patron of the arts.
The classes are a huge success. They produce participation rates four to five times those in normal senior housing, Huskey says.
"We hire college-level professionals to teach classes," Carpenter says. "We have classes that operate on semester bases. Class or workshops will last 6 weeks to 3 months. " "We teach every art under the sun — fine arts, painting, drawing sculpture, performing arts, poetry and drama, writing, literature."
Nailah Jumoke, who discovered late in life that she was a writer, moved to the Arts Colony in North Hollywood from Chicago, where she had lived in senior housing. "I was seeing a lot of seniors just being seniors," she says, "not doing anything. I never liked the idea of getting old, playing bingo, playing cards. I'm very active."
The women in her family have always been active, she says. Her mother is 82, and her grandmother is 98. "These women keep moving. Neither uses assistance in walking. My grandmother lives in her apartment. She still cooks."
And through the programs offered by EngAge, she is still learning things about herself.
"The instructors are very professional," she says. "We do yoga; we do meditations. I'm learning I am also an artist. I ask myself, where did this talent come from? I'm always finding out more and more about myself at this beautiful age at 64."
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North Hollywood Arts Colony resident Lin Rinderknecht, 62, had already moved from Detroit to Florida when she found out ! about the! residences. The former psychiatric nurse had taken care of her mother for 18 years, and then her husband for three years. She followed her daughter and son-in-law to California, but she didn't know anyone else. Everything changed when she discovered the Arts Colony.
"When I moved into this building, everything changed," she said. "It was such a blessing because of the EngAge organization that comes in here."
Rinderknecht had done acting and directing in church events years earlier, but was never a professional. She made it through the selection process.
"I've always been interested in musical theater," she says. "We can walk downstairs and go to a play. I can take all the classes I've always been interested in, but life got in the way and I had to take care of family.
"I'm re-discovering the arts," she says.
And that's the point of EngAge. "Living here allows you to continue to explore who you are and to create the legacy that you want to live and leave behind," says Smith-Fortier.