Beyond Therapy — Aging and the Arts

By David Surface

Older adults possess a unique openness to investing themselves in the arts, thereby developing their talents and stretching their brains.

The idea that older adults can benefit from involvement in creative arts programs is not a new one. Classes in painting, writing, music, and dance have long been standard fare in many senior centers. The rationale for such arts programs has often stemmed from their “therapeutic value.”

While creative arts programs appear to have a genuine therapeutic effect for older adults, changes in our understanding of the aging process also influence changes in our understanding of the relationship between aging and the arts. As we learn to view aging as a process of growth rather than deterioration, we also learn to consider the arts not as a remedy to problems but as tools to unlock human potential.

As the 20th century came to a close, the field of gerontology began to shift its focus from the problems of aging, such as various forms of dementia lumped under the category of senility, to a more potential-focused vision.

“There was a transition in the 70s,” says Gene Cohen, MD, PhD, director of the Center on Aging, Health and Humanities at George Washington University. “Suddenly we started looking at these negative changes not as inevitable consequences of aging but as potential problems that are modifiable.”

Facing challenges regarding assumptions about aging is something Cohen has experienced firsthand. “During my training, I got involved with older people, and I found that it was not at all what I expected it to be. To see the changes that people were capable of in their 70s, 80s, and 90s was an eye opener, and I realized that this was a frontier that needed to be explored,” he explains.

Activity in the Aging Brain
Years ago, it was assumed that the important developmental stages in human life were isolated to infancy, childhood, and adolescence. The definition of a grown-up was literally someone who has stopped growing. While some educators and psychologists have promoted the idea that human growth is a lifelong process, recent discoveries in the physiology of the brain have demonstrated that the statement “we never stop learning” is more than an optimistic philosophy—it’s a biological fact.

New research shows that the brain is in a constant state of growth and development throughout life, and that some of the most interesting developments occur in our later years. We now know that the brain increases its reserves by creating new synapses, the contact points between brain cells. The growth of new synapses is stimulated when the brain is challenged by new activities, and one of the most stimulating of these activities is active engagement in the creative arts.

What makes art activities particularly effective for stimulating the growth of new synapses in the brain is the fact that they’re sustained over time. In other words, while one may stimulate brain growth by reading a book, the act of writing a book keeps the brain engaged at a higher level over a longer period of time, just as physical exercise provides more benefits when it becomes an ongoing and consistent part of one’s life.

Another way in which our new understanding of brain “development” may explain the value of arts as we age is the phenomenon known as brain plasticity, in which one part of the brain takes on the tasks that are usually reserved for another part of the brain. The brain begins to display this kind of versatility later in life. One of the most remarkable aspects of brain plasticity is bilateralization, in which the left and right hemispheres of the brain become less divided and more interactive as we age.

Because active engagement in the creative arts provides maximum opportunity for the left and right brain to interact, Cohen believes that bilateralization may offer a physiological explanation for why the arts often become more important to people as they age and why people who may never have previously engaged in artistic endeavors become artists in their later years.

Tools for Growth

In addition to the continuing development of the brain throughout the life span as we age, psychiatrists also point to lifelong psychological growth that kicks into high gear during our later years. Many believe that this psychological growth finds its strongest stimulus and expression in the creative arts.

According to Cohen, each of us has an inner drive that promotes psychological growth throughout our lives. This drive manifests itself later in life as four distinct phases; themidlife reevaluation phase, in which one’s new sense of mortality prompts the desire to explore unrealized or unexplored potential; the liberation phase, in which elders feel free to explore new options because of lifestyle changes accompanying retirement; the summing-up phase, during which older adults look back and reexamines their lives in an attempt to make sense of all that has happened; and the encore phase, during which elders work to reaffirm and restate the major themes or lessons from their lives.

Engaging in the creative arts provides older adults with the opportunity to navigate these developmental phases and achieve psychological growth. Time and time again, Gay Hanna, PhD, MFA, director of the National Center for Creative Aging, has seen the arts play this important role in the lives of older adults.

“What we find is that as we age, we tend to look back and come to peace with our lives through our life stories,” says Hanna, “whether it’s through story or visual art or even dance. That’s the mechanism that makes the arts engaging.”

Not long ago, when our understanding of aging was problem focused, reflecting on and reviewing life experiences, or reminiscence, was actually discouraged among older adults because it was seen as a sign of pathology. Hanna points to the work of Robert Butler, MD, president and CEO of the International Longevity Center, that led to regarding reminiscence and life review as critical components to healthy aging.

“That’s our job,” Hanna says,  “To help people who want to be engaged in reminiscence and life review know that they can really have extraordinary, beautiful, and joy-filled experiences through expressions in the arts.”

Building on Strengths

A strength-based, potential-focused perspective on aging creates a strong influence on how creative arts programs are designed for older adults. Rather than adopting a therapeutic model that takes aim at weaknesses, potential-focused arts programs for older adults take their cues from the strengths of the participants.

“It’s important when you’re working with older adults that the work is done from the inside out,” Hanna says. “That’s really what makes different programs float or sink. It must be done based on the expertise and experience of the older person involved.”

Ellen Barkin, director of outreach for Elders Share the Arts, agrees that any successful arts program for older adults must take seriously the participants and the art form itself. Barkin points out that her organization intentionally avoids referring to its programs as “art therapy.” “We know that there are indirect effects of participating in an arts program, but there’s not an intentional therapeutic process in what we do,” she says. “We approach it from a perspective that the elders participating in the art class are there because they want to further their artistic process.”

Potential-focused arts programs such as Elders Share the Arts emphasize mastering elements of craft over raw self-expression because it’s in mastering artistic skills that the older adult achieves growth.

“We give constructive feedback and teach the participants in the group how to give one another constructive feedback,” Barkin explains. “If there’s no revision of your work or any awareness of your work, that itself is patronizing because you’re assuming that someone at that stage of life can’t grow. So we always offer room for development and growth.”

Barkin believes that one of the great strengths older artists bring to the table is their willingness to try something new. “They’re willing to explore their creative side,” she says. “Another strength is the wisdom. After all, you’re not working with a child—you’re working with someone who brings a whole lifetime of experience to the artistic process. Also, there’s their flexibility in terms of availability. Later in life, the commitment range is different, and art is no longer something you have to do on the side. You can invest your time into it. All those things make this population unique artistically and what draws us to working with them.”

Artistic and Cultural Revolution

With all the focus on how active engagement in the arts affects older adults, an equally interesting question is how will older adults affect the arts?

As elders become more actively engaged in the creative arts, even as the demographic of older adults in this country reaches an all-time high, many experts believe the stage is being set for a radical change in how we think about the arts.

“By putting this art out there, you widen the understanding of what art is and what art can be,” Barkin says. “The more we see the range of what art elders can create, we have a whole new body of work to learn from. Then it’s no longer a matter of whether it’s elementary or sophisticated, but it becomes about the process, and you understand that the continuum of art isn’t really as easily compartmentalized. We’re teaching people that there is such value in this work.”

There may also be other more practical aspects to how the growth in the elder population may affect the arts. “We need to look at our aging society as an untapped resource that can be actively engaged,” says Hanna. “In terms of the increasing demand for the arts in an older demographic that has more time in the day, more flexibility, it changes the whole business model of the arts. Some groups are really catching on to this.” For example, Hanna points to community schools of the arts, whose buildings are filled with school children in the afternoon and fine artists in the evening, but are now filling with older adults in the morning through midday. Hanna also points out other active roles that older adults can play. “It’s a good business model to engage older adults, not only as students, but also as volunteers and advocates for the arts,” she says.

But ultimately, the greatest contribution that elder artists may make is helping to shake up our assumptions about who is and who is not an artist. “The arts are so intrinsically a human expression,” says Hanna. “It’s sad to say that you have to be in a graduate program to be an artist or to be engaged in the arts. I think in the 21st century we’re going to see that dichotomy go away.”

Appreciation for the skills, attitude, and aptitude of older adults’ artistic capabilities continues to increase. Artistic opportunities for elders are limitless. “It’s such a beautiful bright new horizon out there,” says Hanna.

— David Surface is a freelance writer and consultant in Brooklyn, NY.