I recently had the pleasure of participating in a panel presenting “The Creative Age” at the 77th Annual Conference for the National Guild for Community Arts Education. The panel was sponsored by the National Center for Creative Aging. www.creativeaging.org
Moderator, Susan Perlstein, the Founder of NCCA, gave a wonderful overview of the field of Creativity and Aging in America and how it has developed since we both started working in the little-known field in the late 1970’s — a few of us spread across the country working in our own niches.<vimeo.com/19672439>. Susan talked about the collaborations that occur through the NCCA and with them, the recognition that we are part of a movement to change the way aging is seen and experienced. www.creativeaging.org
Susan paid homage to the work of Dr Gene Cohen, who brought his scientist’s mind and artistic soul to finding ways to demonstrate the benefits to seniors of working with artists in organized programs. He studied two centers – one in Brooklyn, which Susan founded, and one in San Francisco – – CEYA, under the gentle and committed guidance of Jeff Chapline morphed fromArtworks at Mount Zion, the program I founded. Dr Cohen demonstrated that the control group, average age 80, declined as was expected, but the group involved in ongoing arts classes with professional artists (average group member age also 80) not only did not decline, like the control group, but made gains. <Arts.gov/can-Rep4-30-30-06.pdf>; <arts.gov/mini-conference-creativity-3>
This was very exciting when viewed in context of the prevailing assumptions of the time that aging meant inevitable decline in functioning and a narrowing of social relationships. Dr. Cohen’s work demonstrated what we were all seeing then and now- that elders involved in the arts feel better about themselves and their lives, as well as make new social connections. It confirmed our observations in the past that people benefited from learning new skills and being creative, in contradiction to the popular ideas that aging was a desolate country to travel.
Beth Bienvenue, Director of Accessibility for the National Endowment for the Arts, described the NEA’s efforts to support and grow the movement, and the importance of evaluation and research as well as the white paper “The Arts and Human Development”.
See also: NEA Directory of Creative Aging – art.gov; on-line Artists Training in Arts and Aging; Interagency Task Force on the Arts and Human Development. The NEA is funding more research on the impact of the arts on all stages of human development.
Younger practitioners who have not experienced the divide between “artists” and “non-artists” being bridged by all of these efforts, may see the support by the government as not quite as revolutionary as we in the 1980’s dreamed. I was fortunate because my work as leader of a team of multidisciplinary artists who worked with the frail elders was funded by the California Arts Council in 1980 for 5 years and on. The California Arts Council in those days was the leading State Arts Council in the US and pioneered programs being rediscovered now.
The State Arts Councils are now regarded as Communities of Practice. Another panelist was Kathleen Mundell, Director of Creative Aging and Traditional Arts programs for the Maine Arts Commission, who described the wonderful work in Maine, where apprenticeships in traditional arts such as quilting, basket-making and wood carving have been established. <mainearts.maine.gov >
Sylvia Sherman from the Community Music Center of San Francisco presented the joyful programs that not only bring seniors together to sing publicly, but also lessen isolation for those living independently, strengthen community, facilitate the passing on of cultural traditions and have a research component that will be very useful to the field. www.sfcmc.org
Michael Patterson, founder and principal of MindRamp Consulting http://www.mindramp.org introduced the fascinating intricacies of mind and brain and how the arts fuel human development. It seems that genetic aptitudes for the arts are modified by experience and environment, constituting more rationale for providing arts, not only for seniors, but people of all ages. He also mentioned a fascinating new field – Neuroesthetics founded by Dr Semir Zeki of University of London. neuroesthetics.org. Michael also recommended watching http://www.pbs.org/programs/arts-mind/
As the final speaker late on Friday afternoon, I told stories about some of the people who personify the results of the work that we do at EngAGE <www.engagedging.org> and which I write about in this blog.
Overall I was gratified to see how far the field of Art and Aging has come since the early 1980’s when an Arts Council member inquired why we would send an artist to work with an 80 year old man. In those days we did not have the comparatively widespread interest that exists today.
The experience at the Guild was affirming and informative. This is an exciting field where we all continue to learn and grow.