A critical gap exists between arts provision and the aging services needed to reach the rapidly growing older population. Although research by Gene Cohen and colleagues has established that participation in community arts programs increases the health and well-being of older adults (see Cohen's article elsewhere on this page), few organizations offer quality arts programs by or for older people. Only now is momentum building, after decades of pioneering work in the research, policy and practice of arts and aging.
A new horizon has opened, with opportunities for the field of aging to use the arts to spark creativity that will positively affect education, healthcare and civic engagement. New partnerships across the spectrum of arts services that have bloomed since the 1970s have the potential to dramatically increase resource development in service for older adults.
In addition, both public-sector and private funding institutions are beginning to see the importance of providing creative services for older adults on a systemic, sustainable level. The balance of resources is shifting to support an American society where the number of older adults will surpass the school-age population in many urban and rural communities.
Among recent examples, the MetLife Foundation funded the NCCA/MetLife Creativity Matters Symposia, webinars and master artists series, and the National Guild of Community Schools of the Arts launched its Creative Aging Grant Initiative.
In addition, the Wallace Foundation funded two new publications that document the burgeoning supply of arts services and call for better access for individuals and communities who wish to become engaged in them. These include the book Engaging Art: The Next Great Transformation of America's Cultural Life, edited by Steven J. Tepper and Bill Ivey (Routledge Taylor Group, 2008), and the report Cultivating Demand for the Arts: Arts Learning, Arts Engagements and State Arts Policy by Laura Zakaras and Julia F. Lowell (RAND Research in the Arts, 2008).
Also, the National Endowment for the Arts recently released a new funding stream to support the development of programs to engage older adults as creators instead of merely as passive audience members. Many state and local arts councils are following suit.
The field of aging now finds itself poised to benefit from this tremendous supply of high-quality, cost-effective creative activities. In a range of settings, high-quality arts programs provide older adults with opportunities for lifelong learning, meaningful community building and caregiver respite while uplifting individual creative expression. All people wish to grow older with dignity, leading lives filled with purpose and independence for as long as possible. The arts can be a key variable in achieving these goals by providing meaning and true connection among individuals, families and communities.
Although currently limited in number, an extraordinary array of innovative arts programs are available for older Americans. Community-based arts programs, in particular, have gained momentum because they offer older people opportunities to learn while they play significant service roles in their communities.
The field of creative aging has developed several categories of arts programs addressing the needs of older people, from working seniors or retirees who are completely active to those with physical or cognitive disabilities who live at home or in institutions. These programs all build skills and incorporate the life experiences of participants.
One of the three major categories is educational programs. For example, lifelong learning experiences through the arts focus on mastery and are found within higher-education extension services, such as Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes, older-learner programs at colleges and community schools of the arts, as well as in local museums, libraries, music centers, arts stores and other cultural organizations - some online. …