In France they call it "le troisie me a ge," the third age, the one that follows childhood and adulthood, the time of life we designate as senior, mature, elderly, retired, old age. We have ideas about what that time will bring: loneliness, isolation, boredom, failing powers, limitations.

We choose our metaphors to match this image. We call its season "autumn," its color "gray."

Yet in more than 500 programs across the United States, people over 60 and artists are collaborating to reshape that image through dance, drama, music, creative writing and visual-arts workshops to tap the creativity and energy of the third age. At the same time that these programs help older people find a voice to articulate their feelings and their history, they allow them to pass on to younger generations their perspective and ideas.

"Our society needs the creative vision of older adults, to which they bring all their experiences," says Priscilla McCutcheon, director of the Arts Program of the National Council on the Aging. "It's time to get back to an idea of the older person as the carrier of our culture."

Says dancer Liz Lerman, 36, who has worked with seniors for nine years:

"Dance is a powerful expression for everyone, and our culture has lost something by deciding only some should be our dancers. Older people draw on other aspects of dance than just technique. They use the movement inherent in the life they've led, and this can very expressive. It can be as simple as a hand moving across a face."

In 1975, Lerman went to The Roosevelt for Senior Citizens, a residential apartment building in Washington, to look for older performers to participate in a dance piece about her mother's death from cancer. During conversations with her ill mother, she had imagined pictures of her "body floating Chagall-like through the living room."

Lerman's arts organization, The Dance Exchange, holds dance classes at senior centers throughout the city, uses older dancers in its regular repertoire and features a senior performing group, Dancers of the Third Age.

At a rehearsal of this group, 16 dancers, aged 60 to 87, and three younger instructors are working on a version of "Swan Lake." They lift their legs and turn their heads, simulating swan motion. They shrug their shoulders and heads together -- the swans cleaning themselves. The effect is humorous and charming, the movements precise.

"The group has really developed professional level skills," says assistant director Don Zuckerman, 30. "These are professional dancers, and with the professionalism comes a new self-image. It's their artistic outlet. This is what they do; they are dancers."

Thelma Tulane, 87, the oldest member of the group, had never danced before she came to observe one of Lerman's sessions at the Roosevelt. She left as part of the company. "After losing my husband I was very depressed," she says, "but dance has opened up a new world for me. It has become part of me, and changed my life completely."

Charles Rother, 64, a retired Methodist minister who was "turned off to dancing in my twenties," now calls it "exciting; it stimulates the imagination. My blood pressure's down, and it's helped my arthritis and my whole general attitude."

Says another performer, Jess Rea, 67, who holds a masters in dance from New York University, worked with Martha Graham and has been involved in dance all her life: "I dance much better now than I used to. Although physical limitations are more evident, I'm wiser now. I have more experiences to call from."

"My art at this stage in my life is just as important as it was before," says artist Georgette Powell, 68, director of D.C.'s Tomorrow's World Art Center, which includes the "Seniors: Express Yourselves Through Art" program.

"There is a conception that older people are fixed, but that has to do with who you are. If, as you grow older, you have an open mind, it's really fun to experiment. I'm more flexible now."

Most participants in senior programs, however, are coming to art for the first time. For those who are more comfortable working with people their own age, senior workshops can be tailored to specific physical or emotional needs. Poet and former banker John Graham, 74, says he enjoys attending mixed-age workshops at the Writers' Center, but also appreciates a group with contemporaries. "We have a great sense of identity, being a group of senior citizens."

In New York City, the "Elders Share the Arts" program tapes oral histories and life reviews, selects themes such as family or work and develops a script to perform "living history theater." The result, says executive director Susan Perlstein, 42, is "a collage of words, dancing and music that braids together peoples' past and present lives."

Perlstein believes that this process "gives people a further chance to discover who they are, their voices, the hidden treasure inside themselves. Their lives are validated, celebrated, their whole sense of self is enhanced."

At the Art Barn in Washington, printmaker Joyce Wellman, 34, coordinates a multi-media "Fusion Arts" program to help people discover and develop their creative voices, bringing together older adults and children with visual artists, dancers, musicians, writers and even a magician.

"We want to restore the links that traditionally exist between generations in the community," says Wellman, "and to teach everyone, including the artists, collaboration as an art form.

"We were not doing art therapy, but throwing them into the art and asking them to participate by doing, not watching. What I saw in their eyes and voices was a bit of light and happiness. I know if I called any of them now and asked them to come over, they'd be here."

The Art Barn also uses "Fusion Arts" programs to work with Alzheimer's disease patients and their families. The multi-media approach stimulates several senses in an attempt to slow down short-term memory loss, a symptom of the disease.

At one session, several participants were writing poems based on paintings in the room. Others were taking snapshots, the click and whirr of several cameras at once sounding like a field of insects. Poet Garth Tate has each participant rewrite his poem, using synonyms for key words, another device to help memory. He helps them paste on photos to serve as illustrations. One man has written about a painting and now photographs it. "It's usually very comforting here," he says, "and I always learn something."

Such workshops are what Rob Wood, arts coordinator for the Baltimore County Department of Aging, sees as part of a "wellness approach to working with older people. We have a hard time proving it statistically, but we know that art helps keep people alive. They get a strong sense of self-esteem by doing the work themselves."

In arts workshops, older people are also able to confront strong emotions, confusion and anger. "The heart of our 'Fusion Arts' program is candor," says Art Barn director Karen Montgomery. "One woman talked about dying soon. Sometimes people are crying. We are dealing with reality, with people who are in trouble, and they know it."

Reality in senior arts programs can mean many things. Once at the Art Barn no older people showed up because free cheese was being given out in the city that day. Sometimes a friend's funeral keeps people away; sometimes the participants themselves die. There is often the reality of physical disability, or the deterioration of basic skills.

Painter Bernice Elam, who works at the Columbia Senior Center in D.C., was "amazed" when she first started. "Many couldn't follow directions. It's been an uphill fight. But they are easy to work with, attentive. After teaching children, this is a cinch."

For many artists, the first experience in programs for older people is surprising, even unnerving. They arrive with ideas and enthusiasm, and everyone sits there. The participants are reluctant to participate; they don't talk to the artist. One has to draw them out, listen carefully, patiently, waiting for a true glimpse of their hearts. One has to persist.

When writer Judith Bowles, 50, worked in several nursing homes, "the first time, confronting a group, I saw all those eyes on me. I was terrified to make demands on them, and yet making demands is the very thing that's exciting and interesting for them. No matter what hurts that day, no matter what the pain is, despite the manifold losses in their lives, you have to keep them going."

Bowles has led the Iona Poetry Group at Friendship Terrace apartments for several years. At a weekly meeting, some of the members discuss, criticize and edit their work. Participants include retired banker John Graham and his wife, Dorothy Graham, 80, a former social worker; Winifred Morris, 68, a librarian; Eugene Fisher, 84, a producer of Voice of America. None had written poetry before. Now they each turn out several accomplished poems a week. They consider a passage from Fisher's poem:

I am writing a poem. And I wish that my poem/ Will sound like music, will be singing to me. That is what, says the group, the sessions have done for them -- made them "sing."

"This takes priority in our lives," says John Graham. "I've never had so much fun or pleasure before." Dorothy Graham mentions the importance of their coming together as a group, and they all agree. Morris tells of a debilitating illness when she lost her strength. The experience made her realize, "when you have words, you have power."

Poet Marc Kaminsky, codirector of the Institute on Humanities, Arts and Aging at Hunter College's Brookdale Center on Aging, talks of the power of words in his work with older people, using reminiscence to draw out the stories and poetry inside them. Through this work, they are able "to complete a task in later life that life didn't allow them to accomplish, to find and give permanent form to the self they want to be remembered by."

Without the voice they discover in his groups, "There is a part of them that couldn't be made whole."

Kaminsky feels that the writer or artist should "transmit his care, that excitement, that love, that knowledge that writing gives us life by his response to older people, his ability to discover their deepest concerns." In turn, the artist finds, "You are there as an authority, you are there as a grandchild. You are the listener in a storytelling relationship, the one to whom everything is transmitted, and this is a way of growing, of becoming a soul."

For Kaminsky, as for all the artists who evoke the expressive voices of the third age, "Older people have given me other worlds to live in. I carry in me and travel frequently to worlds most people don't visit -- and carry them back, for others to gain access to these worlds."