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AARP Bulletin

Artists Bring Creative Aging to Care Facilities

Long-term care residents, families, caregivers are fans

Singing and art promote healthy living.

In a 'creative aging' program, actors and musicians encourage residents in long-term care homes to get in on the act. — Photo by Kristine Larsen

En español | Not long ago, an arts program in assisted living or nursing homes meant a choir singing a few songs during the holidays while the residents listened quietly. But the scene is changing. Residents now write and act in plays, compose songs and stories, and dance despite their walkers — and in their wheelchairs.

How? They're not professional artists or musicians for the most part. And many have physical limitations, memory loss or other impairments. But with the help of actors, storytellers, songwriters and dancers, they can exercise creativity and have some fun.

The shift from passive appreciation of the arts to hands-on participation by the old and frail is still in its infancy. But that's changing. The belief that creative expression is vital to an older adult's quality of life is part of a movement called "creative aging," which has an enthusiastic and growing audience. Long-term care residents and their families and caregivers aren't the only fans. Federal and local governments, agencies on aging, nonprofits and foundations have begun to fund arts programs and are replicating them nationwide.

Arts programs make sense: Older adults respond to stimulation and social interaction, and art, drama, dance and musical activities provide them with new ways to connect with caregivers. The programs are also relatively cheap to run, compared with paying for medicine or physical care — and can produce dramatic results.

Scientific studies suggest the arts can offer health outcomes no pill can provide. In 2001, the late, eminent gerontologist Gene Cohen studied the influence of the arts on older adults and found that when the adults engaged and learned something new, physical and emotional benefits followed. Cohen's findings and subsequent research suggest that creative expression programs can reduce pain, the need for medication, falls, depression and loneliness — while increasing mobility, helping cognition and making participants feel valued.

Next: Integrating creative expression in long-term care. »

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