A number of studies suggest that participatory arts activities within aging populations help to maintain the health and quality of life of older adults. These benefits include improvements in subjective wellbeing, tactile and cognitive abilities and dementia risk reduction. Music and movement activities (playing instruments, singing, dancing) have been shown to improve physical and mental health among seniors, with decreased anxiety and depression. Visual arts practice showed improvements in psychological health, self-esteem and a notable increase in social engagement. The global population is aging in unparalleled numbers and living much longer than their forebears. While extended lifespans can be a blessing, challenges include social isolation, loss of loved ones, failing health, and difficult life transitions. Luckily, research demonstrates that arts-related interventions can often prove more beneficial to older adults than traditional Western medicine.

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Engagement with the arts also seems to benefit seniors who already have dementia, providing them with social participation and enhanced self-esteem, as well as improved cognitive function and communication skills. In a recent documentary called “Alive Inside,” a volunteer music lover named Dan Cohen provided iPods to some older Americans whose personalities and memories were dulled by dementia. A 90-year-old African-American woman residing in a nursing home could only say in response to questions, “I’m sorry, I don’t remember.” But once she was equipped with an iPod that played music from her youth, she expressed happy feelings, became more mentally aware and was now able to describe the dances and music she had enjoyed years ago in the company of her young friends. At another nursing facility, a man named George with advanced dementia was unable to speak or lift his head when asked his name. After being outfitted with an iPod, George suddenly became animated, talking freely, moving to the music in his wheelchair, and singing along with the songs he once enjoyed. Older people who participate in the arts are not just partaking in a frivolous activity. Rather, for some older adults it might just be the answer to retaining a keen, active mind that is free from bouts of depression and crippling anxiety.

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In the United States, various art forms are improving the health and wellbeing of seniors, helping to keep them out of care facilities and able to carry on living independently. With financial contributions from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Institute on Aging, many committed individuals working in the field of arts have developed programs that make use of creative activities such as painting, storytelling, quilting, poetry writing, music, dance, and singing to add value and meaning to the lives of older people. In Southern California at the Burbank Senior Artists Colony, 82-year-old former schoolteacher, Sally Connors, wrote and directed a screenplay that was performed by fellow residents and supported through a program called EngAGE. Then, with Dolly Brittan, 79, a retired early childhood educator, the women wrote their life stories in rap and performed their music onstage for a group of at-risk teenagers they were mentoring. Meanwhile, 90-year-old Walter Hurlburt, who once was employed as a sign painter, is busy at work decorating rooms at the retirement facility he calls home, with beautiful oil paintings he creates from pictures he discovers in books and magazines. Mr. Hurlburt enjoys learning how to make use of a variety of artistic techniques in his work and regularly attends art classes at his residence. Each of these people claims that their latter-day involvement with the arts has made them feel years younger.

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As in Burbank, Tim Carpenter, the executive director of EngAGE, is now working to expand the development of arts colonies in senior residences where occupants can study and create art in its many manifestations and where they can see their artistic creations performed on a stage. A study by geriatric psychologist Dr. Gene Cohen, showed that seniors who become and stay involved in arts courses taught by professional artists saw a vast improvement in their physical health. In a film called “Do Not Go Gently,” Dr. Cohen featured an architect who, at the age of 96, put forward a plan for redeveloping the World Trade Center site. Dr. Cohen determined that creativity challenges the mind and results in the formation of new dendrites, the brain’s communication channels. An N.E.A.-sponsored study revealed that when older adults become involved in culturally enriching programs, they experience a decline in depression, are less likely to fall and pay fewer visits to the doctor. In another study among people with Alzheimer’s disease, a sculpting program improved the mood of participants and decreased their agitation. Janine Tursini, director of Arts for the Aging in Maryland, believes the arts open up the elderly and give them new avenues for self-expression, an opportunity to tell their stories. Arts programs take advantage of the assets that remain, and don’t focus on what’s been lost.

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Tim Carpenter, of EngAGE, claims that it is never too late to reap the benefits of creativity. He suggests that seniors get going by looking at the things they always wanted to do but didn’t think they had the time because of work and family obligations. Carpenter believes that learning about art and making art is really good for you. Creativity is a way for your mind to be open to new things. The act of creating something leads to happiness, and getting out in the world and attending classes, workshops and seminars is a form of socialization and it broadens your horizons. Carpenter feels that everyone has the ability to be creative and to make art. Aging does not diminish our ability and we have to undo these myths. Following is a powerful example of what it means to be immersed in the arts. In Canada, Cosimo Geracitano, 71, has spent almost every day of the last decade painstakingly crafting replicas of masterpiece art in his Coquitlam, B.C., home. All the walls in the rooms of his house are covered with his homages to French Impressionists, Italian Renaissance masters, English landscape artists, among others. He has always loved art and been fascinated with art history, and chose to create his own paintings because the originals would never be available to him. Geracitano has worked steadily for 10 years and he’s created 45 complete paintings thus far, some so large they cover entire walls. Geracitano first started painting when he was nine years old and living in southern Italy. When he moved to Canada, life as the family provider occupied most of his time and he didn’t paint for almost 20 years. But after he retired from his job as a repairman, he picked up his brushes again and has created a stunning art museum in his home.

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“AGING WITH ATTITUDE MEANS BEING A LITTLE BIT RAMBUNCTIOUS AND NOT ALLOWING PEOPLE TO TALK YOU OUT OF YOUR CREATIVITY. IF YOU FIND YOURSELF AGING WITH ATTITUDE, YOU’RE SAYING, “YES, I CAN!” 

JULIA CAMERON, AUTHOR, “THE ARTIST’S WAY”