Level Thinking: Creativity and Aging

Susan Perlstein is one of my favorite people. She founded Elders Share the Arts in New York City, and is the Founder Emeritus National Centre for Creative Aging in Washington, D.C. Several videos of her speaking can be found on-line. Search for her name.

These are some things  I learned from  her about creativity and aging.

Creativity is scary as well as having a lot of positive values. The arts are deep play. Current brain research shows that as people age, both sides of the brain integrate. Younger people tend to be more right-brained or left-brained, but older people are whole-brained. One surprising thing that brain research has shown is that when the brain is stimulated with real creativity, brain tissue grows more dendrites, that is, the brain reserve gets larger. The immune system also grows stronger.

In North America, the shift from a negative, medical model of aging into what can older people offer has happened since 2000. Elders Share the Arts (New York City) started by collecting stories and transforming them into all art forms. This grew into the first landmark research on creativity and aging in the US. The research was carried out between 2001 and 2005. Since then every study done has added to the body of knowledge that show that the health of older people involved in creative artistic expression group improved significantly in all areas. They:

  • lived longer
  • visited the doctor less often
  • took fewer medications
  • incurred less health care costs
  • had fewer falls
  • increased their visual acuity, if they were engaged in visual arts
  • had more friends and social contacts
  • increased their sense of mastery and control over their lives, even in non-art areas
  • had increased confidence
  • increased their ability and willingness to problem-solve and locate and use resources
  • experienced less depression
  • appeared to have a deceased risk for entering long-term care

The National Center for Creative Aging also came out of that research. They continue to promote art projects for older people. The organization’s goal is to pair as many senior’s programs as possible to arts organizations on the local, state, and national level. They have wonderful on-line resources. If you are involved in any organization for older people, this is a great site to check out.

Total respect for life experiences is the base and heart of artistic programs for seniors. These are not “keep busy” projects. We are talking professional art instruction, public performances and art exhibits, and social integration into a multi-generational group.

Stop thinking of arts for older people as follow-the-dot kits, sing-alongs, etc. where all the person has to do is slap on some paint or try to remember the words to old songs. Real creativity starts with the blank page, the lump of clay, a drum, or an empty stage.

Stop using bland, non-controversial subjects, such as having older people paint a bunch of flowers on a table. Tap into the individual and cultural heritage that every older person has and allow art to grow out of the richness of that heritage.

Real artists deserve real working space, and real display space. Stop thinking of art for older people in terms of “Art Corners” furnished with second-hand furniture and third-hand, close-out-sale art supplies, where finished projects are Scotch-taped or pinned to a bulletin board with thumbtacks. Get artists into real art studios, real performance spaces. Mount the pictures, frame them, and display them in galleries. Put actors, poets, musicians, and writers on stage. Make CDs. Do desk top publishing. Organize living history festivals and present them in real venues.

Think partnerships. It’s not a matter of corporations or governments making a donation and walking away. Close the circle by taking the art back to those same organizations in the form of art displays, performances, etc.

Train people already working with older adults in the arts; train artists in working with older people.

Form intergenerational liaisons and projects whenever possible. Connect to local school curricula and build artist/school links, such as linking a seniors’ centre and a school in the same neighborhood.

If you want a look at some older people totally immersed in their art, I recommend both of these films, which I throughly enjoyed.

 Film: Do Not Go Gently: the power of imagination in aging

2007, 57 minutes, US production, narrated by Walter Cronkite. This film once had it’s own web site from which it could be ordered, but that site seems to have disappeared. The link is to the Internet Movie Data Base listing for this filem

Explores the thoughts of older artists and others involved in creative aging. How important is imagination to the experience of being human? What are the most inventive artists expressing at a very old age? And why? This is a very powerful film, featuring:

  • Arlonzia Pettaway, 84, quilter from Gees Bend, Alabama.
  • Frederick Franklin, 93 ballet artist, who’s still dancing and teaching younger dancers
  • Leo Ornstein, over 100, musical composer and pianist
  • Several groups around the US, which offer artistic programs for their senior members

 Film: Still Kicking

2006, 35 minutes, US production

Amy Gorman invited Frances Kandl to journey with her throughout the San Francisco Bay Area searching for female role models—very old women, still active artists, living with zest. While Amy chronicles their oral histories, Frances is inspired to compose songs for several of these women, many well past 90, culminating in concerts celebrating lives liberated by age. Artists featured:

  • Frances Catlett, 95, painter
  • Ann Davlin, 93, dance and piano teacher
  • Madeline Mason, 101, doll maker
  • Elsie Otaga, 91, ikebana artist
  • Grace Gildersleeve, 95, rug weaver
  • Lily Hearst, 108, pianist

“If you don’t have a sense of wonder, you can’t create. Wonder begins when you ask a question to which there is no clear answer. The question and answer must flow through one another. The question must be the answer and the answer must be the next question.” ~Ted Blodgett, City of Edmonton, Alberta poet laureate, 2008-2009

If you’re following my Tuesday series on Writing a Novel, I hope to see you back on Tuesday, March 18 for Character Development, Part 3 — Expanding the Starter Kit