Over the past two decades, prompted by the increase in the nation’s older population — including but not only Baby Boomers — research on aging processes has led to new views of aging. Rather than perceiving aging as a period of inevitable decline and loss, ‘positive-aging’ proponents celebrate growing older as a time ripe with the potential for personal growth, enhanced well-being, and civic engagement.
While ‘agism’ — a deeply embedded negative view of aging — still persists in some institutions and professions, there is a general societal shift towards a more positive perception. Service providers, educators, government agencies, foundations and community organizations across the country are responding to these new views and transforming their services accordingly. ‘Encore Careers,’ ‘Communities for All Ages,’ ’50+’ products and social media, and efforts to rethink and even rename senior centers are just a few initiatives that reflect the new emphasis on positive aging.
The field of creative aging focuses on the beneficial and powerful role of the arts in enhancing the quality of life for older adults and is increasingly recognized as an important contributor to positive aging. Researchers are discovering that the aging brain is far more plastic than previously believed, and that structured learning – especially through the arts – can improve cognitive functioning and enhance the quality of life.
A landmark 2006 study by Gene D. Cohen, M.D., Ph.D., The Creativity and Aging Study, demonstrated that professionally conducted, sequential arts-learning programs promoted better health and disease prevention among older adults who actively engaged in them.
Cohen and other researchers have shown that structured arts education fosters mastery and promotes social engagement two key ingredients for positive aging. With funding from the National Institute on Health, Cohen’s study is being replicated in part with an expanded sample size and a more rigorous methodology by Dr. Julene Johnson of UCSF.
Three distinct areas of creative aging practice have emerged with each addressing particular segments of the older adult population, from active Baby Boomers and retirees, to frail elderly. The underlying emphasis in all is active engagement and professional facilitation.
1. Health and Wellness
This arena includes art therapies and programs that are geared towards frail, institutionalized elderly and populations with cognitive loss, (i.e. Alzheimer, dementia). Though programs may be instructional the goals are therapeutic.
Community focused engagement programs use the arts as cultural development or civic engagement vehicles and include programs and opportunities through which older adults can contribute to the life of their communities. These include volunteer and mentoring programs that link older adults and younger generations.
3. Lifelong Learning
These community based instructional programs build skills in the arts through participatory workshops and often culminate in a public sharing. Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes and continuing education courses are included in this area of practice.