Why involve the Arts in the aging process?

I recently presented at the California Council on Gerontology and Geriatrics (Fostering Active and Purposeful Aging: a California Journey) and briefly touched on the relationship of the creative process to learning and how the arts can be beneficial to the process of aging (that is from birth on)

WHY Arts!

This is the first part of understanding the value of the creative process (as it manifests in the arts) in healthy and purposeful aging


The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that 33 million boomers vacated jobs primarily in the fields of teaching, administration, library science, non-profits. These retirees may be looking for new sources of purpose and meaningful involvement which is one way to combat the ageist messages they have been exposed to for most of their lives. They constitute a rich fund of social capital with potentially great benefits to society. It is therefore important for both the community and the individual that retirees do not believe the destructive attitudes toward aging called ageism – as in “over the hill”, “ you can’t teach old dogs new tricks” and so on.

How the Arts can be involved.

I refer to the Arts in the broadest sense, for example including writing, cooking, dancing, music and singing, to those subjects usually considered to be Art.

There is a common misperception that the world is divided into artists and non-artists; and “real” artists are defined as only those whose work commands large sums of money.

In fact the arts are broader and more integrated into human experience than many realize. Fritjof Capra in The Systems View of Life describes how creativity is inherent in all forms of life and how discoveries in the 1990s mean that “art was an integral part of the evolution of modern humans from the very beginning”.

How is this? Let’s explore the modern human. All children draw. In the 1960’s Rhoda Kellog (Analyzing Childrens’ Art) recorded that children in all societies draw, whether it is using sticks to make marks in the dust, using hands to move food into lines and shapes or crayons and brushes on paper. Viktor Lowenfeld connects Creative and Mental Growth in his work of the same name. Howard Gardener and John Dewey also recognize the connections between creativity and human development. Elliot Eisner describes the non-verbal ways of taking in and processing information and how this results in ways of knowing different from those associated with language. In other words we learn and grow during the creative process. Learning feeds the imagination and spirals into higher levels of understanding, continuing growth and skill-building throughout life even when cognition and language are impaired. Finding purpose and a new meaning involves learning.

The artistic process involves and enhances skills that are useful in daily life in all kinds of non-arts ways. It is important then to lay out the parallels between components of the creative process and life-skills. They are:

  • Problem solving
  • observational skills
  • planning
  • collaborating
  • appropriating and incorporating ideas
  • Expression
  • inventing new ideas and sensibilities testing
  • risk-taking & consequently increased confidence
  • exploring self – potential, unresolved issues, fears, dreams.

That last point is developed further by Peter London  who describes in No More Second-hand Art

The artistic process is more than a collection of crafted things; it is more than the process of making those things. It is the chance to encounter dimensions of inner being and to discover deep rewarding patterns of meaning”.

and we also note that actual involvement in the creative process grows exponentially. Dr Gene Cohen studied the effects of involvement in arts programs for seniors at community centers. Those

“involved in creative arts programs develop a mounting sense of control and mastery. This leads to feelings of empowerment, which spread to other areas of life and have positive impact on physical and emotional health.” (Gene Cohen, M.D. Ph.D.)Underlines mine.

We observe that the arts provide a common-ground where the boundaries of language, culture, age are transcended and the whole person is involved. Acts of creation and expression align our different ways of knowing; they provide bridges from inner worlds to outer, integrating the spiritual, psychological, emotional, social and physical.

The results of involvement in arts programs for seniors

….  point to powerful positive intervention effects of these community-based art programs run by professional artists. They point to true health promotion and disease prevention effects. In that they also show stabilization and actual increase in community-based activities in general among those in the cultural programs, they reveal a positive impact on maintaining independence and on reducing dependency. This latter point demonstrates that these community-based cultural programs for older adults appear to be reducing risk factors that drive the need for long-term care.  (Gene Cohen, M.D., Ph.D.)

The ARTS in the broadest sense embedded in the context of the whole person in community and a larger network of partners are beneficial.


The leading image is an abstract art design dictated by a frail elder to an artist. The artist gave the maquette to a team of older crafts people who constructed a translucent 6ft x 4ft banner  as part of the  Elder Banner Project. This and all the other banners were displayed around a hospital and at a San Francisco City Arts Festival. The objective was to dispaly the beauty and, through the eye-catching work, to bring attention to the people who were isolated, home-bound and invisible. This artist was a quadriplegic whose days were transformed even though he could not move his body and was often in pain; because of his work with artists he spent his time joyfully designing many beautiful banners.

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