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AARP Bulletin

Artists Bring Creative Aging to Care Facilities

Long-term care residents, families, caregivers are fans

Dancing and art promote healthy living.

Research suggests that creative expression programs can reduce pain and loneliness while increasing mobility, helping cognition and making participants feel valued. — Photo by Darin Back/Redux

Songwriting Works

Songwriters and musicians in a Washington state-based company begin by asking residents what they want to write about or pose a question (e.g. "What is goodness?"). As ideas flow, a facilitator puts them together. But it's the residents who come up with the lyrics and melody.

So far, some 3,000 older adults, average age 87, in 36 facilities in California, Washington and Pennsylvania have created 300 songs. "We believe residents will come up with something incredibly interesting, funny, meaningful, deep, true or unexpected — and they do," says Songwriting Works founder Judith-Kate Friedman. "We don't know their diagnoses, so it gives them a fresh start."

Friedman recalls a man who couldn't enunciate more than a couple of words but was able to create 70 percent of a complicated melody to a song about homecomings during World War II — just by singing "ah, ah, ah." "Creating music in care facilities is restorative, invigorating and enlightening to the brain," says Friedman.

"When Judith-Kate uses one of my lines, I am so pleased," says Edie Sadewitz, 91, a widow who lives at the Jewish Home in San Francisco. "I never thought I could be so important in creating such a beautiful song."

Stagebridge Theatre Company

An Oakland, Calif.-based acting company reaches care facility residents through stories. It uses two approaches: For those who are cognitively aware, storytellers dramatize a story and encourage the audience to relate their own tales. For those with dementia, Stagebridge uses a program called TimeSlips, which provides a photograph to kick-start discussion. The leader asks open-ended questions, crafting the residents' reactions into a story, and reads back the finished product.

Kirk Waller, director of storytelling at Stagebridge, teaches residents with and without dementia, but finds results similar. "As I am setting up, often people are not smiling, even grumbling," he says. "By the end of the class, they are talking more, smiling and laughing." Storytelling often becomes a shared experience. Doctors, medical staff, family — even UPS delivery workers — often get caught up in the sessions, too.

For Waller, watching the transformation in the residents is thrilling. "They forget about where they are for the moment and remember some of the better times in their lives," he says. "It's such a pleasure to make the quality of their life better."

Sally Abrahms, based in Boston, writes about aging.

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