January 19, 2007
Executive Director's Column
There is new and compelling research about the health benefits deriving from participation in the arts by senior adults. This research has obvious and very significant implications for return on investment in both social and financial terms.
I call your attention to the report entitled The Creativity and Aging Study: The Impact of Professionally Conducted Cultural Programs on Older Adults. The NEA, as lead sponsor, was joined by the Center for Mental Health Services, the National Institute of Mental Health at NIH, AARP, the Stella & Charles Guttman Foundation and the International Foundation for Music Research. Primary Investigator Dr. Gene Cohen, M.D., Ph.D, directs the Center on Aging, Health & Humanities at The George Washington University. One bottom-line conclusion of his: “These community-based cultural programs for older adults appear to be reducing the risk factors that drive the need for long-term care.” Specifically, the study found that “those involved in the weekly participatory art programs . . . reported (A) better health, fewer doctor visits, and less medication usage; (B) more positive responses on the mental health measures; (C) more involvement in overall activities.” The 8-page report details findings in each of these three areas at each study site, and I highly recommend reading it.
Dr. Cohen’s credentials are impeccable. He has authored over a hundred publications in the field of aging, is founding director of the Washington, D.C., Center on Aging, and is a past president of the Gerontological Society of America. The research design builds on well established traditions of gerontologic research and the methodology meets a high standard.
Dr. Cohen made some particularly useful observations at the recent National Conference on Arts & Aging: Creativity Matters held at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, where I had the privilege of moderating a session on programs in the visual and literary arts. In response to my question about why participatory arts activities would provide benefits superior to any other participatory activities, such as sports or classes in other subjects or field trips, he pointed out that the opportunities offered by arts activities provide exceptional motivation for people to continue regular involvement. In the report, it reads this way:
The significance of the arts programs is that they foster sustained involvement because of their beauty and productivity. They keep the participants involved week after week, compounding positive effects being achieved. Many general activities and physical exercises do not have this high engaging, thereby sustaining, quality.
This first national conference on arts and aging illustrates how this multidisciplinary field is developing. It was sponsored by a team including The Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey, MetLife Foundation, The National Endowment for the Arts, the New Jersey State Council on the Arts/Dept. of State, NAMM (now the International Music Products Association), Wallerstein Foundation for Geriatric Life Improvement, and The Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives. This mix illustrates the potential for significant resources from other fields and all sectors to support arts activities that include aging populations The National Center for Creative Aging (Susan Perlstein, executive director), which currently connects ten arts and aging networks across the country, is a major resource for information, program models and expertise, as is The Society for the Arts in Healthcare (Gay Hanna, executive director). Paula Terry, NEA director of AccessAbility, is a champion of creative aging and a great resource in this area, as she is for all endeavors to enable everyone to participate in the arts. The NEA web site and the web sites of those state arts agencies who have received the NEA-NASAA AccessAbililty Leadership Award (New Jersey, Massachusetts and, this week at the national conference of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters–Maine) are good resources, too.
Programs that make creative aging possible for all Americans are not only a moral imperative; they represent an enormous opportunity for state arts agencies to gain public value as the boomer cohort ages–and those who recognize themselves and their relatives in that cohort increase in number and influence. It is difficult to imagine a more powerful claim on public sector investment than activities documented to reduce medication need, lower accident rates, minimize depression, and reduce dependency. Ways to quantify these benefits of arts programming with validity should not be far off. In the environmental scan that any public cultural agency conducts as part of its strategic planning, it would be wise as well as responsible to consider its appropriate service role in the area of creative aging.
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