Music is in the air once again for Beryl Pettigrew. The 92-year-old resident of Golden West Senior Living is on a fixed income, but thanks to a local nonprofit called Circle of Care (COC), he doesn’t have to miss out on the live music that sustains him.

Pettigrew, who previously taught high school orchestra and was first violin with the Duluth Symphony Orchestra in Minnesota, is one of the many arts-loving seniors helped by COC. The nonprofit partners with more than 50 music, theater, dance and other arts organizations to distribute tickets to older people who otherwise couldn’t afford them, or for whom aging makes it difficult to go on their own.

“It makes life better because I get to hear the music that exhilarates me, so I’m living the life I want,” said Pettigrew, who is nearly blind from glaucoma. “It’s invaluable what it does for me.”

Tickets to Boulder’s premier cultural events can easily cost $30 or more, but low-income seniors like Pettigrew are able to experience the best the arts community has to offer for just $5 — including free transportation and a companion for the evening.

COC exclusively serves low-income seniors, primarily those living in Golden West (1055 Adams Cir.) and Presbyterian Manor (1050 Arapahoe Ave.), but qualified residents living in their own homes are also eligible. For some participants, the organization provides a lifeline into the broader community along with the ability to engage with it.  

“We get older people into public spaces. That generates visibility of older adults who normally are the ones not seen, the hidden,” said Joan Raderman, COC founder and program director. “They have a right to be in the community — they were the ones who helped build it.”

Tickets to Boulder’s premier cultural events can easily cost $30 or more, but low-income seniors are able to experience the best the arts community has to offer for just $5 — including free transportation and a companion for the evening — thanks to Circle of Care. Courtesy: Joan Raderman

‘It’s a win/win.

During a typical week, elders might gussy up to see the Boulder Chamber Orchestra take on Tchaikovsky and Bach, experience a stirring performance from the University of Colorado Wind Symphony or check out an adaptation of Love’s Labour’s Won from the Upstart Crow Theater.

Participants choose the performances they want to attend. Trained volunteers use their own cars to pick them up and take them to the event. Drivers help as needed with walkers or just by providing a supportive arm, and get a free ticket to stay throughout the show before driving them home.

Arts groups, seniors and volunteers say the result is a win across the board.

Getting excess tickets to underserved groups is typically an integral part of  the mission of many arts organizations, but distributing them effectively is challenging. “We need to trust that the tickets will get to the right people. Circle of Care makes that happen,” said Eve Orenstein, director of development and communications for the Boulder Chamber Orchestra.

Nancy Smith, founder and director of the aerial dance company Frequent Flyers, makes a similar point. “It’s important to give back to the community that we receive from,” she said. “We want as many people as possible to experience this art form.” 

Frequent Flyers, for example, regularly sets aside 10 to 15 tickets for COC. The Boulder Philharmonic donates about 40 seats to its Macky Auditorium performances. Donated tickets often are for dress rehearsal night. 

Provided seats are often the best in the house, to accommodate those who can’t see, hear and move as well as they once did. “Access is aimed at making it as easy as possible” for seniors to attend, said Sara Parkinson, the philharmonic’s executive director.  

And for many of the 75 to 100 active  drivers, who are often recently retired themselves, the prime motivation in volunteering is simply helping others.

“I want to give back to people. The arts are so important in people’s lives. It touches your soul, your inner being — even your health,” said driver Terry Crook. “Live music is so different than listening to a recording. There is an energy and excitement in the air. It’s invigorating, even if you can’t see.”

In addition to bringing “happiness and joy to the elders,” driver Norma Portnoy says supplementing her own entertainment budget with free tickets doesn’t hurt, either. “We get to attend events we otherwise couldn’t afford or wouldn’t know about. It really is a win/win.”

Circle of Care participants settle in for an evening of performing arts, thanks to the nonprofit’s efforts to connect older people with discounts and companionship for cultural events in Boulder County. Courtesy: Joan Raderman

Origins and challenges

Circle of Care was sparked by what  Raderman calls an “epiphany” she had while singing at a nursing home Christmas party in 2003. 

Raderman was struck by “how many broken hearts and faces” were watching her perform. “I’m singing jolly carols while these people are broken,” she said.  “When I left, I was sobbing, and I thought ‘I’m getting them out of there.’”

The experience spurred Raderman’s  passion for ending isolation for older people, which quickly became her life’s mission.  She designed COC in a frenzy over the next three months.

Raderman knew her goal wouldn’t be easy. First, she had to make the partnership beneficial to performing arts groups, who want to broaden community exposure. She also had to solve access issues for the elderly participants who generally no longer drive and often need extra help. Raderman also had to entice community volunteers to stay involved long-term.

An organized group of reliable senior participants helped greatly in winning over the arts groups, as did relieving them of liability concerns should someone be injured. Raderman said COC drivers have given 40,000 rides in the organization’s nearly 20-year history, with no accidents. “It’s safer to go with us than on their own,” she said. 

COC launched in 2004 with five key partners who still remain: the Colorado Music Festival, Shakespeare Festival, Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, Boulder Symphony and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra. Art supporters today also include Frequent Flyers, the Boulder International Film Festival, the Dairy Arts Center and dozens more.

Raderman said arts groups typically have a commitment to reach out to underserved communities — many grant applications require recipients to demonstrate community outreach — but the logistics of doing that effectively can be complicated. 

“We don’t just hand out tickets” hoping they get used, she said. “We are designed to meet the needs of the arts organizations, and are respectful of their need to sell tickets. We only give tickets to low-income seniors,” returning those that won’t be used to the organization for sale to paying customers. “That was a missing piece for many arts organizations and solving that helped them get on board.”

Along the way, Raderman has garnered numerous awards including a Daily Camera Pacesetter Award for Quality of Life, the Women Who Light Up the Community Award and, most recently, BizWest’s Notable Women Award last July. Circle of Care also has won a national best practices designations from MetLife Foundation.

Perhaps most remarkable, Raderman has run Circle of Care with zero employees on a very low budget — just $28,000 this year, including city and county grants. That funding is supplemented by some $1.5 million in in-kind donations through donated tickets and the time of volunteer drivers.

Running Circle of Care alone has been a challenge for Raderman. Nevertheless, she says “the calling hasn‘t faltered, no matter what. It’s my life, not just a job. I’m constantly on the phone, my iPad or computer. I’m doing it all the time. I breathe it.”

But as with so many other organizations, Covid-19 has altered COC’s strategy in executing its mission. With seniors often in lockdown and many cultural organizations shuttered or nixing in-person events, she has added  new programs like Phone Buddies, in which volunteers connect weekly with an isolated participant. She’s also partnering with MasterClass on scholarships for online classes given by an array of world-class experts.

If anything, Covid has only strengthened Raderman’s commitment to make the golden years brighter for Boulder-area seniors. “As one’s physical and cognitive life changes, they become socially isolated, and Covid just makes it worse. It’s an epidemic, too. Passion must be connected to action, and then it works miracles. Circle of Care still holds that miraculousness to me.”

Sally Bell is a former major city newspaper reporter with many years of experience, who in retirement now freelances occasionally because she misses it. She has lived in Boulder for more than 20 years.