Art at its most basic is a way of understanding and interpreting the world. While a painting or a piece of music can be inspirational, moving, sad, motivational or all of the above, the process of bringing those things to life can be equally meaningful. As we touch brush to canvas, mold clay or capture fleeting moments, we are experiencing life even as we are preserving it. That act has many benefits beyond just the emotional; creating art can improve cognitive abilities, preserve memory, connect us with others and so much more.
Oft-cited features associated with successful aging include a sense of purpose, interactions with others, personal growth, self-acceptance, autonomy and health. Creative activities contribute in some way to all of these features.
A sense of purpose
Painting, knitting, writing and other forms of expression do so much more than just quell boredom. By regularly engaging in these activities, elders feel a sense of purpose associated with the task at hand and a sense of accomplishment when complete. More so than just watching television or lying in bed, art allows seniors to contribute to society and to their own wellbeing while making an indelible mark on their world and others. There is now a reason to get out of bed, to eat, to continue in their lives.
Interactions with others
As we socialize, our brains are activated. We are listening, comprehending, formulating responses, and so much more. Art as a communal activity gives older individuals an excuse to get together, discuss the latest news, share tips related to aging, discuss their children and grandchildren, and even wax nostalgic for the "good old days." When reunited with their caregiver after the activity, the conversation can turn to the project. The art becomes a point of conversation and bonding.
Turns out, you can teach an old dog new tricks! Every day, there seems to be a new story of a 70-year-old who took up music for the first time or an 80-year-old learning to draw. These new skills activate parts of our brain that can easily go dormant when being a passive participant in life. Learning things is exciting, encourages us to share with others, and improves mental acuity.
With age often comes various impairments. It can be difficult to accept these new limitations in life, especially for those who were active in their younger days. However, slowing down can have its perks. As some seniors may be forced to take it easy, they find that they are capable of excitement in a new and different way. Composing music may not be as exciting as running a marathon, but it carries with it new challenges that can lead to self-acceptance and even self-love.
At Council on Aging's adult day health care center, The Retreat, we had a day of fun painting rocks for the Pensacola Rocks phenomenon. Many of these individuals live with Alzheimer's and dementia and can no longer perform basic life functions by themselves. They seemed to understand, however, the fun involved with touching brush to stone. Without any assistance, many of them created collages of color or recreated memories that they got to keep. This autonomy leads to greater confidence and, of course, greater health outcomes.
Mental and physical health are probably our primary worries as we age. And while art may not have a direct impact on physical health, it does help with hand-eye coordination, concentration, memory and so much more. Using art to engage with memories, like creating a collage of childhood photos, can even reinvigorate longterm memory and excite the pleasure and memory centers of the brain.
Many community organizations offer great opportunities for those looking to get started in the exciting world of art, including Pensacola State College.
"The College of Continuing Education offers a large variety of classes for people of all ages," said Marianne Arroyo, an instructor at PSC. "I teach Drawing and Painting classes. The classes that I offer range from beginner to advanced with an emphasis on traditional techniques, as I believe, one must learn to walk before running. Students learn about different materials, brush techniques, composition and color theory. Students get to work right away because often the biggest obstacle that they face is fear."
For those reluctant to start a new creative chapter of their lives, Arroyo recommends that they listen, learn and then jump right in. She reports that oftentimes her older students are surprised by how well they are able to draw and paint.
"Working with adults is extremely gratifying," said Arroyo. "My students come from various backgrounds and different life experiences. They are interesting and have unique perspectives. Age doesn't limit the need for continued learning. For many of my students, this is the first time in their lives that they have the freedom to choose what they want to do with their time. They've had careers and they have raised families. It's often a transitional time and the ideal time to experiment with various classes and discover something they love; something they can devote their time to. Additionally, it provides social interaction which is important as we age. I've seen many friendships develop as a result of these classes."
As we age, it is very easy to stay in a comfort zone. Trying something new may lead to a new hobby or even a new professional pursuit.
"I like to quote theartist Frederic Whitaker," said Arroyo. '"A painter seldom makes his mark until middle age - and sometimes a great deal later. Many artists have done their best work after 70.'"
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