Arts engagement across the lifespan

In the first part of my ART CART fellowship (Fall 2012), my classmates and I were given the task of researching a topic related to arts and aging.  Considering my interest in arts engagement, I compiled this brief annotated bibliography to add to the knowledge base of the ART CART project.

ART CART Artists 2013

ART CART DC Artists (2013)

Friedman, M. (2012). Art Can Be Good for Mental Health. Huffington Post. Retrieved from website: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-friedman-lmsw/art-mental-health_b_1562010.html?ir=Arts

As suggested by the title, the purpose of this article is to describe and help others better understand how “art can be good for mental health.” The author’s experience and extensive knowledge of psychology and social work warrant a level of credibility and establishes confidence in the reader. The article supports greater participation in the arts and provides ample justification of this position.

Author Michael Friedman, L.M.S.W. (which stands for Licensed Master Social Worker, as I have come to discover)[1] presents content in a logical, comprehensible, and relevant way, addressing key aspects and implications of arts participation on mental health and the aging process. He begins by addressing art more broadly, as a “tremendous source of happiness for a great many people,” and how it can be “a healing force” for those with mental illnesses, and points to the contribution of art to one’s overall mental health.

He continues by citing Martin Seligman, author of Flourish, and his concept of psychological well-being, which consists of “five critical elements” – ‘positive emotion, engagement, accomplishment, positive relationships, and meaning.’  Throughout the remainder of the article, he demonstrates how the arts effectively serve and enhance each of these elements.  To summarize, he states:

The contributions that art can make to psychological well-being via enjoyment, immersion, development of skill, revelation and expression of emotion, shaping of self, connections with people and a culture, and the potential for transcendent experience apply both to people without mental disorders and those with mental disorders.  For them, art can have a great healing impact…

To close, he emphasizes the capacity of arts participation to establish fulfilling lives among present and future generations.  He also poses the idea of a public mental health agenda, which not only aims to provide treatment for those with mental disorders, but also attends to the “human potential to live well.”

Ellena, Eric and Berna Huebner. Narrated by Olivia de Havilland. Produced by Centre national de la cinématographie, Association France Alzheimer, French Connection Films, Hilgos Foundation. Distributed by Aquarius Health Care Media. 2009. Documentary. I remember better when I paint: Treating Alzheimer’s through the creative arts. Paris, France: French Connection Films.

In the documentary’s trailer, which has been made available on YouTube,[2] narrator Olivia de Havilland begins to unfold the journey of aging adults in creative activities and the many benefits of engaging in the arts.  The feature film centers on older adults with Alzheimer’s disease and having to cope with its adverse affects.

The documentary consists of seven short films, featuring a variety of creative therapies and ways of adapting and incorporating them into existing programs in assisted living facilities, nursing homes, and care centers. The purpose of this documentary is to capture and illustrate the positive results associated with creative activities and mental health.  It highlights the ability of “drawing, painting, and museum visits to improve quality of life and to restore a dialogue between caregivers and families.”

The film incorporates multiple perspectives from a variety of interdisciplinary fields.  Dr. Robert C. Green, Professor of Neurology and Genetics at Boston University, provides insight into the rather selective onset and early nature of the disease (targeting the area of the brain responsible for creating new memories).  Dr. Sam Gandy, the Associate Director of Mount Sinai Alzheimer’s disease Research Center in New York City, discusses parts of the brain associated with creativity – the Parietal Lobe – and how this area tends to be affected much later in the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

Tony Jones and Judy Holstein provide a more aesthetic, visceral description of the response to and benefits of Alzheimer’s patients experiencing and participating in the arts. Tony Jones, the Chancellor of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, reflects on the connection that is established between the older adults and the art, which is somehow communicating and creating a dialogue through its various features (e.g. scale, color, and vibrancy).  Judy Holstein, Director of CJE Senior Life Day Service in Chicago, provides insight into this remarkable phenomenon:

The creative arts are an avenue to tap into a nonverbal, emotional place in a person.  When they’re given paint, markers, any kind of medium for art-making, and their hands are involved and their muscles are involved, things are tapped in them that are genuine, and active, and alive. So the creative arts bypass the limitations and they simply go to the strengths…

National Guild of Community Schools of the Arts (2007). Creativity Matters: The Arts and Aging Toolkit. Retrieved 11/03/12, from artsandaging.org/index.php

The National Guild of Community Schools, the National Center for Creative Aging, and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center developed a toolkit to provide information and tools for leaders involved in the arts and aging programs. Arts Creativity Matters: The Arts and Aging Toolkit is designed to help readers appreciate the urgency for such programs, to better understand and learn about older adults, aging services, and the arts, to articulate the benefits to a variety of stakeholders, and to create, manage, and sustain arts and aging programs for older adults.

The purpose of the toolkit is summarized on the Creativity Matters webpage. “Designed for the arts and aging services fields, this resource explains why and how older adults benefit from participating in professionally conducted community arts programs and offers detailed advice and examples on program design, implementation, and evaluation.”  Creativity is a central theme, understandably, and serves as a relevant connection to the arts and the meaningful experiences and contributions of older adults as individuals and within communities.

The toolkit is divided into ten chapters and supplemented by a glossary of terms and appendices offering various tools, templates, and resources.  The contents of the Creativity Matters: The Arts and Aging Toolkit include:

  • Chapter 1: Understanding the Context for Arts and Aging Programs
  • Chapter 2: How Arts Participation Benefits Older Adults
  • Chapter 3: The Aging Services Field
  • Chapter 4: The Arts Field
  • Chapter 5: Effective Practices
  • Chapter 6: Program Design
  • Chapter 7: Program Implementation
  • Chapter 8: Evaluation
  • Chapter 9: Public Awareness
  • Chapter 10: Looking to the Future

This toolkit appears to be a useful and informative resource.  It serves to build communication, understanding, connections, community, and respect among and between those involved.  The establishment of and participation in high-quality arts and aging programs not only enhances learning and discovery over the lifespan, it also engages older adults in the creation and celebration of one’s personal and artistic legacy.


[2] Eric Ellena and Berna Huebner. (2009, 11/03/12). I Remember Better When I Paint. [YouTube video] Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=54AtoQVGfwU

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