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8 Surprising Ideas from the Creative Aging Movement

International experts exchange insights on Arts and Aging around the world.

We all age, but how should we age? Pioneers of creative aging movement say that the key to embracing the process of getting old and enjoying our longer lives is through the arts. For more than a decade, this emerging positive practice has been transforming and improving the lives of thousands of older adults worldwide.

The Creative Aging movement was boosted by the groundbreaking book “The Creativity and Aging Study” of the late Gene Cohen which showed how older adults can acquire positive physical, psychological, and emotional health benefits from participating in creative activities and skills training in a social environment. Since then, more institutions all over the world are now focusing on developing and enhancing creative aging programs to improve the lives of older adults and their community.

In 2016, the National Center on Creative Aging (NCCA) held THE CREATIVE AGE: Global Perspectives on Creativity & Aging, an international conference on creative aging where over 350 advocates and experts around the world gathered together to exchange creative ideas and share experiences on the positive innovations of age-friendly cities, global brain health situation and creative caregiving.

This annual gathering brought together advocates, artists, researchers, entrepreneur and world leaders to talk about the important role of arts and creative activities in fighting ageism and keeping people connected, spirited, and healthy as they age. They exchanged ideas about how various art forms such as poetry, music, weaving, storytelling, dancing and painting can make the lives of aging people around the world better and how being engaged in each can help them go through the challenges of aging.

Some thought provoking studies and groundbreaking innovations shared by international experts also gave a glimpse of the challenges creative aging is facing and positive policies some countries were able to implement. The following are some of the ideas and experiences shared in the international convention.

1. Art helps lower loneliness and depression and boosts morale and dexterity of older people in an Aging City.

Taiwan is one of the fastest aging nations in Asia. Experts predict that it could achieve the status of a “super –aged society” by 2025. With the burgeoning aging population, the need for more programs and facilities for the well-being of older adults is ballooning. That’s why the creative aging movement in the country has been making waves in the growing industry.

Peishan Yang, a professor at National Taiwan University shared in the conference their research on History Alive and Legacy Art Work in Taiwan. Since 2005, their art-making and performance arts programs helped around 60,000 older adults in the country.

Data collected for more than a decade showed that the Taiwan’s population of older adults experienced lower rates of depression and loneliness due to the arts program. It also increased their morale and helped improve their hand dexterity.

Because of art, older adults were able to discover new roles in their society. This gave them the confidence to live with dignity, boost their mood and have healthier family relationships. Some were also able to increase their income through the arts they make.

2. Creative aging in the US remains only for the privileged.

One of the studies presented at the conference revealed that there is a wide gap between the rich and poor, and the educated and less educated when it comes to participation of older people in the arts. According to data scientist Lin Chiat Chang, “creative aging is a social privilege in the U.S.A.”

Older adults who report that they do not engage in creative arts are usually from households with lower income and level of education while those who are active in participating in the arts have higher income and level of education.

People also choose their creative arts depending on their socioeconomic attributes. Older adults who choose to practice jewelry making and needlework are usually those who have lower educational attainment while those who take creative writing and photography as their hobby are mostly college graduates with high income. Older adults who are involved in social dancing usually live in high-income households compared to people, who sing, play instrument or paint.

Despite the demarcation, data showed that older adults in the lower socioeconomic groups benefit and excel more in creative arts than high-income groups. In fact, they “perform much better than their peers on multiple wellness metrics!” said Chang.

3. Different creative art forms have a different effect on wellbeing.

How do we measure the wellness that creativity gives to older people? In the same presentation, Chang also shared the relationship between creative arts and its effects on the wellness of older adults. She found that different art forms affect older people differently.

Older adults who scored well in word recall are mostly those who make jewelry, quilt, sew, weave, knit, and other hand works. Older adults who dance are usually those who are positive and confident about their health. Those who did well in Serial 7’s mental test are often those who make metal works, leather works and woodworks.

4. Getting personal can lead to proper solutions.

For years, the Netherlands has been one of World Health Organization’s Age-Friendly Cities and Communities due to their positive policies and funding for their aging population. Policy advisors and social gerontologist came together to transform Hague into an age-friendly city fostering independence, social connections, and respect for older residents by providing access to more than 350 activities for aging adults. The Hague deputy mayor, Karsten Klein gave a glimpse on how they did it in an interview for an article.

In his city, they launched a program where social welfare volunteers and workers visited every 75-year-old adult in their city and asked them what their major problems are and what will make them happy.

“You have to go to the individual level,” Klein said. If not, some in the higher ups would propose they need more housekeeping services to make their lives better, when in fact, their problem was isolation. To get to a concrete solution, the government needs to know the concrete problem from the people’s perspective. As it turns out, the feelings of isolation and lack of purpose cannot be solved by efficient housekeeping, but by providing a venue for social and creative aging programs that older adults can engage in.

5. The cultural and historical diversity of participants should be considered in using Art Therapy techniques.

Art therapy techniques for older people in the US may not apply to the same generation of older people in other countries – this is what Raquel Stephenson, a professor at Lesley University found out when she worked in Estonia.

When she worked abroad, only then did she understand how important it is to understand the culture and history of different societies to know what kinds of art therapies apply to their aging population. Stephenson’s international work inspired her to look and consider the distinctive history of individuals and groups of people in a different perspective.

To prove her point, Stephenson asked participants in the international convention to note major historical moments in their public (9/11, climate change) and personal lives (birth or death). She also made them jot down their cultural influences that made who they are. As a result, participants coming from different generations (boomers, millennial, Generation X) and countries had very different answers from one another.

6. Sound Diet is vital to brain health.

“Hearing loss will speed up cognitive aging,” shared Nina Kraus, an inventor, amateur musician, and director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University. She showed in the conference how hearing loss impacts brain health greatly. According to her, most people take sound for granted because it’s invisible like gravity.

But to keep our brains healthy as we age, Kraus stressed the need to keep a “healthy diet in sound.” This means, training our brains with music.

Kraus investigated in their lab how brain processes sound and how the sound changes people’s brain. Based on their findings from the study involving thousands of participants across ages, playing music, learning a new language, aging, hearing loss, and language disorders can influence our brain’s capability to process sound.

In keeping a healthy “sound diet” for our brain, Kraus suggests long-term and short-term activities such as the following:

  • Playing and performing music. Musicians can hear much better than those who don’t play music. Older people who played music all throughout their lives “have a brain that looks biologically younger.” But you have to play and perform music not just listen to one. “Simply listening to music does not seem to have an impact on listening, language and cognitive skills,” Kraus stressed. “You don’t get physically fit watching spectator sports.”
  • Learning to speak a new language. Bilingual speakers, who frequently switch between two languages, exercise their attention skills better than those who know only one language. Switching mode is an exercise for our brain enabling us to focus better on a stream of speech when we are in a noisy place.
  • Computer music training games. Kraus said that playing sound games on the computer may be effective in teaching older adults to hear better but doesn’t guarantee to motivate a person in the long run. Training in music is still the best even if you started later in life because it is “inherently more emotionally and intellectually satisfying [in] nature… than a brain-training game.”

7. Older people benefit greatly in Farming programs

Urban gardening in the US has been proven to improve older people’s skills, communities, and relationships. As a living example, the Goddard House Assisted living community shared their experience on building, growing and sustaining their community farm.

Three years ago, John Moniz started Growing the Farm at Goddard House to involve the residents in urban farming. Since then, the gardening kept the residents active.

“[It] stimulates them,” said Moniz. “When you think about it, [farming] really is a universal [art] program you can cooperate with music, art, and fitness.”

The Goddard staff has also noticed significant changes in the resident’s well-being since the garden started. Gardening gave older people a reason to get up every day to tend to their plants. When they harvest their cabbages, potatoes, and herbs, it brings them unparalleled happiness in seeing the fruits of their labor. Some residents, who did farming all their life, seem to have no memory loss when it comes to tending their patches.

Farming also improved the quality of life and socialization for older adults. When Goddard House partnered with the local school, grade school pupils would visit and help residents harvest vegetables. Residents would help them make a fresh vegetable salad that they would eat together with the class.

“Bringing in children is really enlightening for older people,” said one of the staff. “It overall creates an environment of joy and fun.”

8. New technology can copy Grandma’s way of telling stories.

VoicingElder, a virtual reality storytelling platform, can help older adults reminisce and tell their stories with the use of virtual puppets that can copy their movements and expressions. Kinetic imaging professor Semi Ryu developed this virtual simulation to encourage older people to comfortably tell their stories to people through a fun and engaging way.

When older people tell stories, they are usually full of feelings, memory, and wisdom. Most elders are best at telling their story rather than writing it. That’s why despite their vast knowledge on culture and history of the past, only the memories of those who can write linger on to the next generation. VoicingElder changes this by bringing the oral tradition of storytelling back in history.

To operate VoicingElder, an older adult will be given a headset and controls like a puppeteer. He then will control the avatar on the projected screen by doing gestures, speech, and movement while telling a story. From their hands, head to their eyebrow movements, the avatar will copy everything the older adult does.

This can help them shape their own life history in an engaging way and record it for their families and friends to watch. The platform can greatly help older adults communicate with their families and caregivers better and also help the latter understand the history of the person using it.

“Watching their own puppet [perform] on screen, [can help] develop new perspectives and reveal deep memory in thick documentation,” said Ryu.

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