Article Archive

Summer 2008

The Art of Aging: Creativity Matters
By Gay Hanna, PhD, MFA
Aging Well
Vol. 1 No. 3

Interviewer: “How are you doing today?”
97-year-old visual artist: “Well, I’m above ground.”

— From the Information on Artists III Aging Study

What do older professional artists’ lives tell us about aging? Joan Jeffri, founder and director of the Research Center for Arts and Culture at Columbia University, says, “The ‘IOA [Information on Artists] III: Special Focus NYC Aging Artists’ study contends that artists who have learned how to adapt their whole lives have a great deal to offer as models in our society, especially as the workforce changes to accommodate multiple careers and as baby boomers enter the retirement generation.”

“Above Ground” is a study of 146 educated professional artists from the five boroughs of New York City with a mean and median age of 73. Most have bachelor’s and/or master’s degrees and a median income of $30,000. Their lifestyles include healthcare, retirement plans, high life satisfaction and self-esteem, communication with other artists daily or weekly, career satisfaction, daily attendance in the studio, sales of personal works in the past year, and possible changes in art medium due to physical or other restrictions. But they’ve never considered abandoning their artistic talents.

“For me to retire from painting would be to retire from life,” says Robert Motherwell, who is 71. “I’ll retire when I’m in my coffin,” says a jewelry designer, aged 69. “Art is what makes me live,” explains a 93-year-old visual artist.

Like many people, I have not spent my professional life working solely as an artist. So what does this important study tell me? It conveys to me the importance of remaining engaged in creative activities where I can feel wholly absorbed, even passionate. It is essential that these activities build and nurture my life in my community of friends and colleagues, that I work and play while enjoying these relationships each and every day while remaining productive. If I have physical or other limitations, I shouldn’t give up but adapt by choosing another creative activity that accommodates my engagement in the world. Finally, this study demonstrates the importance of looking forward while maintaining satisfaction in a life well spent.

What keeps older adults from becoming engaged in arts activities? Maybe they have been reluctant to become involved in the arts: Aren’t the arts for the elite? The wealthy? The very talented? No, they’re for everyone. And, yes, you can keep learning new things over the course of your entire life, such as playing the guitar, singing the blues or in a choir, ballroom dancing (even rock and roll), watercolor painting, photography, poetry writing, and more. Participating in the arts costs little, is accessible to people at all skill levels, and is extremely rewarding.

Gene Cohen, MD, PhD, director of the Center on Aging, Health and Humanities at George Washington University urges elders to remember that the third age is the liberation phase. His recent study, funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, found that older adults, with a median age of 85, who engaged in arts activities, had fewer doctor visits, suffered fewer falls, and maintained a stronger social network than did the peer control group. I believe that they also just had more fun, with the added benefit of finding new meaning and purpose in their lives.

How can older adults find out more about arts programs in their communities? They can check out a city’s local arts council, which is usually one of the local government agencies. The council has information about all arts services open to older adults—ones they are already paying for with their tax dollars. Also, many music stores offer music lessons and rent instruments. Community schools of the arts, life long learning institutes, and community colleges provide arts courses in just about every form—visual, performing, and literary.

Museums, libraries, and performing arts centers are not just for looking or browsing; they also have exciting educational programs that will open new worlds of adventure, possibly in partnership with another generation or people from different cultures.

There are programs in the arts designed specifically for patients and their loved one, such as TimeSlips and Meet Me at MoMA (Museum of Modern Art). These programs encourage inventing stories or viewing art that stimulates memory.

If you are a program director, take a look at the new Web site for Creativity Matters: The Arts and Aging Toolkit. You will find best practices, research, and resources to develop new programs or to enhance your current program.

My passion for sharing the benefits of the arts for elders stems from being an artist who has carved stone for 27 years. Now I am not going to be a Michelangelo, but I will continue to celebrate being part of humanity through this ancient art form. In fact, you can think of me every Saturday morning in the fall, winter, and spring in the bowels of the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington, DC, with stone chips flying and surrounded by my fellow students aged 18 to 70 and beyond—having the time of my life.

— Gay Hanna, PhD, MFA, is the executive director of the National Center for Creative Aging, an affiliate of George Washington University in Washington, DC.