Creative Aging Advisory Committee Spotlight: Karen Maeda Allman

This quarterly blog post spotlights the Frye’s Creative Aging Advisory Committee, a volunteer group of professionals and community members who advocate for the arts, healthcare, and people living with dementia, and bring a wide range of expertise and life experiences into the design and implementation of the museum’s Creative Aging programs

This month we’re featuring Karen Maeda Allman. Karen spoke with Samantha Sanders, Creative Aging Coordinator, on July 7, 2023, about her passion for Creative Aging and connection with the Frye. 

Photograph of Karen Maeda Allman
Photo: Libby Lewis

Hi, Karen! You’re currently an assistant agent at Wales Literary Agency. As a recently retired award-winning book promoter, former psychiatric nurse, and musician, can you please share how your personal and professional life experiences intersect with your interest in the field of Creative Aging? 

I have a personal connection to this topic in that my father had vascular dementia, and I was previously a long-distance caregiver for him. I grew up in Arizona, where I also completed my master's degree in nursing. I was then accepted into a doctorate program at the University of Washington, moved to Seattle, and never looked back. Ever since visiting the Emerald City on a family trip at thirteen years old, I wanted to live by the ocean and get out of the heat! There were also more LGBT+ people and a visible Japanese American community here, which is important to me, being from a multi-racial family. My dad would have loved the Frye’s Creative Aging programs if he had lived here! The sometimes difficult lived experience of caregiving, coupled with my background in nursing, instilled an awareness of the immense need for caregiver support. I joined an informal support group with Keri Pollock and Mary Jane Knecht, who both had close relatives going through the same thing as I did at that time. Caregivers are still so isolated today—the COVID-19 pandemic did not help that.


What does Creative Aging mean to you personally, and what are the health benefits of creative engagement?

During my time in the PhD program in nursing, I started to think about how the arts can reach people in ways that other things would not. For example, while I was a nursing student at the Veterans Affairs hospital in the 1970s, patients wrote poetry about their experiences. Many of them were dealing with mental health issues, depression, and situational problems. Getting them to use poetry allowed memories to emerge out of storytelling. I think Creative Aging is really about staying in community with each other. Reinforcing belonging within a group with a common identity is valuable.


You were the author events co-coordinator with Elliott Bay Book Company for over two decades, promoting books and connecting the Greater Seattle community. What does your background in literature bring to your understanding of aging creatively?

I have no formal background in literature but a couple of years after I moved to Seattle, I started volunteering for the Friday night shifts at Red and Black Books Collective on 15th Avenue East. It was a great way to meet people (particularly other out lesbian and gay people, and people of color). After Red and Black closed in 1999, I found my niche in bookselling, coordinating author events and working at many offsite events for the Elliott Bay Book Company. Located close to First Hill and the Frye, the bookstore just celebrated over 50 years in business.

As booksellers, we bring our interests into what we’re doing. Over the years, I’ve seen many of the same regulars frequent the store and witnessed how their lives have changed, including, for some, having a family member affected by dementia. Elliott Bay has a great self-help section with resources on aging, brain health, and caregiving, but sometimes my job was just to listen and provide help in unexpected ways. For example, one holiday season, a customer told me that it was increasingly difficult to communicate with her mother who had dementia. Her mother seemed most engaged when creating captions for The New Yorker cartoons, which she had always loved. I helped her locate The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Game (still available online). Sometimes reading a novel or poetry can provide insight and empathy for those living with challenges like dementia. Dr. Kris Rhoads does a nice job of showing this person-first approach in his work.


As a member of the Frye Art Museum’s Creative Aging Advisory Committee, you offer guidance on programs including those for adults living with dementia and their care partners. What inspired you to partner with the Frye?

As a longtime Seattle resident, I knew things were changing at the Frye when I saw Anxious Objects: Willie Cole’s Favorite Brands in 2007. I’ve always been interested in art and liked outsider artists. My mom was an immigrant who worked for many years as a seamstress, and I felt connected to the politics embedded in that work. I started visiting more regularly after that. It felt like a corner was turned. It’s so interesting as I started thinking more about how museums communicate with communities. I’ve enjoyed the poet artists featured at the Frye – Jane Wong, Anastacia Reneé, and Storme Webber to name a few! Currently, I love THE THIRD, MEANING: ESTAR(SER) Installs the Frye Collection exhibition.


In addition to being a Creative Aging advisor, you serve on the Seattle Arts & Lectures Board. You’ve also served on several important literary awards panels and are the 2017 Prowda Literary Champion Award winner. Please share your thoughts about the importance of storytelling and serving the community.

I appreciate being involved in community organizations that bring us together, especially through the arts. I have a particular appreciation for those writers who can take events from their lives and create art from those experiences.


On that note, promoting access to stories by diverse authors has been important to your work. For the marginalized community of folks with dementia and memory loss, what books and resources might you recommend for understanding living with dementia and destigmatizing the disease? For instance, I understand you nominated for the Seattle Reads 2023 selection Julie Otsuka’s novel, The Swimmers, which centers around a Japanese American woman living with dementia.

A book released this year that I read in one sitting in the library is Travelers to Unimaginable Lands: Stories of Dementia, the Caregiver, and the Human Brain by Dasha Kiper. It features stories told to a clinician who works with people with dementia. The book offers perspective and comments on what we as caregivers hope we’re not doing. Kiper takes a deep dive into obstacles and also offers solace. South African author Gerda Saunders’ memoir Memory’s Last Breath: Field Notes on My Dementia is another must-read and focuses on the author’s early-onset dementia. She chronicles the process of what her life was like and changes in her own experience. Saunders has made various films, including The Gerda That Remains (2022), a PBS Utah Film. Wisdom Gone Wild is a PBS film series by Rea Tajiri about her mother, Rose, who was incarcerated during WWII. The film shows how this Japanese American family is affected by Rose’s decline with dementia, including joy and caregiving challenges. Other recent noteworthy mentions include Enlightened Aging by Eric B. Larson, MD, MPH, and Joan DeClaire and Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives by Daniel Levitin. 


What is something you’d like others to know about you?

I probably care more about community and relationships than anything. The choices I’ve made in life have privileged that over other things. I’m interested in the ways people connect. Also, I love memoirs! I’m just curious about people’s lives and experiences.


Looking toward the future, what do you hope to see in your field to support people in living healthy, happy, and meaningful lives?

Reading is important! Take time to do that, whether it’s reading to yourself or someone else. If the excuse is being “too busy,” perhaps take a moment to think about your priorities for time. Screen time can be good, like Zoom with relatives. However, analog media is powerful. There’s a lot of great content out there – birding, gardening, zines, etc. The Seattle Public Library invented Peak Picks, a shelf of readily available new and popular books. I highly recommend checking it out today! 


This series is facilitated and written by Samantha C. Sanders, Creative Aging Coordinator.  

To learn more about Creative Aging, including how to register, visit our programs page.