The joyful benefits of creative expression for older adults
According to the American Art Therapy Association, art, music, dance and other creative pursuits have some exciting benefits for aging adults, including improved memory, motor skills, self-esteem, relaxation, as well as strengthening neural pathways that may help prevent dementia.
The key is nonverbal communication and visual imagery. “Art and art making are inherently perceptually and sensory based and involve the brain and the body in ways that verbal language does not,” the association reports.
And because so many expressive pursuits are group efforts, the interaction also energizes social connections and fosters new relationships at a time when many seniors risk feeling a sense of isolation. It’s easy to get people to participate because of the enjoyment and satisfaction involved, says Libby Christianson, director of community programs at Lake Forest Place, a Presbyterian Homes community with its own arts and crafts studio.
“We have many residents here who are artists,” Christianson says. “There is growing research about the benefits of using creative arts with persons with cognitive impairment. Having a creative outlet in which you are not searching for words can be satisfying.”
A group called Art Gathering meets weekly to work on their projects, many of which are displayed in the Susie Morris Art Gallery at Lake Forest Place. And memory care residents enjoy the benefits of an art therapy program administered by the local Equestrian Connection, a therapeutic riding center that promotes holistic health by also offering artistic expression and massage therapy. Many residents also have their work displayed at the Station Art Gallery in Lake Bluff.
A satisfied artist
“To my mind, the opportunity to embrace art at many levels is a vital part of life, and it matters a lot that it be present on a daily basis,” says Lucia Miller, who works on sculptures once or twice a week with a group at Evanston Art Center.
A resident of Ten Twenty Grove, a Presbyterian Homes retirement community in Evanston, Miller sketched and painted in her younger years, but for the past 15 has focused on creating — and even selling — her sculptures.
“I enjoy a fine life, but if I didn’t have this work with my hands and eyes and whichever side of my brain governs creativity to look forward to, my life would be poorer,” Miller says.
Though she sells her artwork, Miller says she never made a living off her art, and says the side money is secondary.
“Art brings me challenges that are absorbing and frustrating. It gives me peace and satisfaction. All in all, it removes me from the daily concerns of doctor appointments, exercise classes and memory challenges,” she says.
Living the creative life
Art is a big part of life at Ten Twenty Grove and its neighboring assisted living community, King Home. Every year there’s a weeklong Midsummer Art Show in the large, elegant Huss Gallery at King Home featuring art from residents, staff and their families— everything from paintings to photography.
And recently an art wall was set up at Ten Twenty Grove to display residents’ work for months at a time. Opening receptions with wine, cheese and music add to the fun.
“Ten Twenty recently started a featured artist program here in this building,” says resident Marge Mueller. “There are several artists living here and three of us have been displayed for a month. The shows open with a reception to which the artist’s friends and family are invited.”
Yet you don’t need to be proficient with a brush or pencil to enhance your health through creative expression. Playing or even listening to music provides a number of benefits such as improved memory and alertness, according to research at Johns Hopkins University.
And dance can be an outstanding activity for the body and mind, says Erica Hornthal, a dance therapist who works with Presbyterian Homes residents.
“Dance and movement therapy has many brain health benefits,” Hornthal says. “Movement improves efficiency of brain connections, maintains and sometimes improves neural pathways, and can even improve plasticity (the brain’s ability to change). It enhances mood, self-esteem and emotional regulation, all of which originate in the brain.”
Benefits of a green thumb
Gardening might seem to be little more than digging in the dirt, but from a creative standpoint the activity is so much more.
Because gardening emphasizes planning, color and pattern recognition, and dexterity, it is a wonderful creative outlet that offers a number of healing qualities for seniors. Research shows that even just spending time in a garden can lower stress and blood pressure levels — and help reduce problems related to dementia.
A new study at University of Exeter Medical School in England reviewed findings of 17 research papers and found that gardening increased physical activity and elevated moods along with alertness.
So regardless of whether seniors photograph a garden, listen to music in a garden, paint flowers, or dance amid the bowers, their creativity — and happiness — is destined to blossom.
—Bob Young for Presbyterian Homes