Creative engagement for older adults has positive psychological, social, cognitive and physiological impacts.
One way to improve the health of older adults is to get them involved with art. Studies continue to show a correlation between the artistic engagement of seniors and improved outcomes for their physical and mental health.
Art Improves Health
Self-reported data from the 2014 Health and Retirement Study demonstrates how the arts can combat hypertension, as well as cognitive and physical decline. Study participants also reported that engaging in artistic pursuits helped them increase socialization with family and friends while improving their level of activity and engagement in the community.
The socialization aspect of making art is profound when you consider that isolation often increases as we age, leading to loneliness and depression — which is now understood to be a public health crisis. Loneliness is as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to the Foundation for Art and Healing.
Participation in any form of art — including painting, pottery, dance, music, poetry, drama or oral history — has positive implications on older adults’ health. These are the findings of the Creativity and Aging Study led by Dr. Gene Cohen. His research confirmed that older adults who engaged in the arts improved their physical health, had fewer visits to their doctor, required less medication and reported fewer falls than those who didn’t.
More than 60,000 older adults have participated in the History Alive and Legacy Art Work programs since 2005. National Taiwan University Professor Peishan Yang reports that participants have shown decreased rates of loneliness and depression, improved mood and confidence, higher morale, and greater hand dexterity, all of which translated into improvements in many areas of their lives.
The Benefits of Expressing Yourself Through Art
A recent article in Geriatric Monthly by Barbara Bagan, Ph.D., ATR-BC, details positive outcomes, in addition to improved physical health, that artistic outlets can provide for older adults. She explains that art can:
The process of making art can be a powerful antidote to the walls that dementia often builds. When verbal communication becomes difficult or impossible, art can provide a pathway that speech no longer travels.
Art Therapist Dr. Raquel Stephenson, program coordinator for Art Therapy at Lesley University, has seen this with her own eyes many times. A non-verbal student in one of her painting classes may suddenly become intensely engaged as they touch, smell and feel the paint. “Where Alzheimer’s disease slammed shut the door of communication, art therapy opened up a new window,” she says.
It’s the process that matters, according to Stephenson, who has founded several national and international art therapy programs. “When people take the risk of making art with others, it builds community, which is therapeutic,” she says. “Making art allows this community-building to happen quickly and more powerfully.”
Anne, 91, moved to a small group home after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Her daughter hired an art therapist to visit, and the therapist and Anne listened to music, painted and laughed together as Anne found the sense of playfulness her dementia had stolen. She was able to complete four paintings before she died, humorously entitling one, “Yellow, Yellow Catch a Fellow.”
A rural Alabama saw miller, Lester Potts became a respected watercolor artist after joining an art therapy program at a local daycare center. Potts had never shown any artistic talent before being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in his later years.
“Two Friends Photo” by Lester E. Potts. Works available here. Proceeds benefit art therapy charity.
“Dad’s creativity had profound positive effects on him and our family,” says his son, Dr. Daniel C. Potts, who founded Cognitive Dynamics after his father’s death “to bring these therapeutic opportunities to others in like circumstances. The mission of the organization is to improve quality of life for those with cognitive impairment and their caregivers through the expressive arts and storytelling.”
Barriers to Participation
In spite of all the documented benefits of art in the lives of older adults, age brings a host of roadblocks to participation. Common problems include the lack of a program nearby, difficulties in getting to a venue, poor physical health, and the absence of a friend or partner with whom to participate.
Various groups are stepping in to fill the gap. Local organizations in urban communities, such as New York City’s Elders Share the Arts (ESTA), provide programs for thousands of people.
Many more participate through outreach programs originating in institutions. The Art Institute of Chicago’s Art Insights program offers visits to retirement communities, bringing the arts to older adults who can’t visit the museum itself.
The institute also partners with Well Connected and Telephone Topics, using a telephone to reach even the most isolated senior. You can find telephone programs for older adults, including programs in Spanish, through DOROT’s University Without Walls.
In the book “Successful Aging,” the authors discuss the three supports of a good life in later years: low risk of disease, high mental and physical functioning, and being actively engaged in life. Art activities can help skew each of these in a positive fashion. Current research repeatedly supports the inclusion and enhancement of art involvement for older adults. The prescription for good health ought to include artistic endeavors.
Click below for the other articles in the June 2019 Senior Spirit
Blog posting provided by Society of Certified Senior Advisors
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