By Jennie Smith-Peers, Executive Director, National Center for Creative Aging
“There is no denying the problems that accompany aging. But what has been universally denied is the potential. The ultimate expression of potential is creativity.” Dr. Gene Cohen, The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential.
The world is in the midst of a major demographic shift. The average life expectancy at birth rose from 47.3 years in 1900 to 76.9 years in 2000. People are living longer, healthier lives and are looking for meaningful ways to engage in their communities. People’s sense of being old is changing and expectations of later life are higher than they have ever been.
Within health and social services there has been a recognition of the importance of promoting dignity and choice; and, professionals in many disciplines are keenly interested in the theory and practice of creative work by, and for, older people—whether fully active or frail. Those in creative fields are finding an extraordinary opportunity: to transform the experience of being old in the world by giving meaning and purpose not only to aging but to the community at large.
Increasingly, science is providing insight into what practitioners and participants already know: the arts are good for you. A recent article from Createquity, a research-focused arts blog in the United States, summarized several studies and found that “the most compelling evidence of the value of the arts revolves around improving the lives of older adults.” They go on to say, “in particular, there is substantial causal evidence that participatory arts activities help to maintain the health and quality of life of older adults.”
Innovative programs are being implemented across the globe in a wide variety of settings and communities. Here are a few inspiring examples.
Founded in 2006, the Gold Theatre of Saitama is a theater troupe of 48 members aged 55 – 80 based in Japan. Formally led by Yukio Ninagawa, one the most esteemed theater directors in the world, they have produced 10 shows to critical acclaim that rotate between western classics to more modern Japanese Theater. Ningawa wrote, “By harnessing the energy of people with a lot of life experience, I thought we could create experimental works that push the boundaries of what a performance could be.” As reported by the Baring Foundation, many of the older adults stated that this work has overwhelming changed their lives for the better.
Supported by the SK Stiftung Kultur der Sparkasse Foundation, the Generation Blog is an digital platform that allows older adults and teenagers to explore each other’s life through an artistic lens. Older adults are paired with 3 students, and together the teams learn the basics of photography, how to interview each other and publish their work on the blog. Workshops topics such as: work and money, friendship and love, selfies and self-representation.
The impact on both generations has been tremendous. One older participant said, “I wouldn’t have thought that it’s possible. The project changed my perspective. Today, I take notice of young people I never thought about before, and I see them with very different eyes.”
cARTrefu, which means to reside in Welsh, is a 4-year program run by Age Cymru, which aims to improve access to quality arts experiences for older people in residential care. Age Cymru worked with 16 professional artists in four different fields: Performing Arts, Visual Arts, Words and Music. These artists each delivered 8-week residencies across Wales, introducing a mix of established art forms and new activities residents may not have had the chance to experience before.
An evaluation by Bangor University published in 2017 confirmed that participating in the cARTrefu program has had a significant impact on older people’s well-being. It has also changed staff attitudes towards residents, especially those with dementia, and gave them more confidence in leading creative activities themselves.
For more information about creative aging in the United States or any of the resources mentioned, please contact the National Center for Creative Aging (NCCA) at firstname.lastname@example.org or creativeaging.org. The NCCA, co-founded by Gene Cohen, M.D., is dedicated to advancing the field of creative aging by leading and serving a diverse network of organizations and individuals throughout the US and the globe.