Programs Bring Art of the Aging Brain to Homes and Communities

Article excerpt

2007 ASA-NCOA Joint Conference

"Art is like chocolate to the brain," declared Gene Cohen, director of the Center on Aging, Health and Humanities at George Washington University, Washington, D.C. Cohen spoke at the symposium titled "The Aging Brain: Lifelong Learning Through the Creative Arts" at the recent 2007 Joint Conference of the American Society on Aging (ASA) and National Council on Aging in Chicago. Cohen, along with a number of panelists, explored the benefits of expressive arts, lifelong learning and creativity for older adults.

According to Cohen, in 1970, the typical American age 65 or older had less than a high school education. By 1990, though, those 65 or more had at least some college education. By 2000, the 5O-plus set was far better educated than their parents' generation-and they were returning to campus, constituting the fastest-growing group of students in college and graduate programs. "By the 21 st century," Cohen stated, "recognition was growing that lifelong learning benefited from engagement in the arts, and this engagement led to better health for older adults and enhanced contributions to culture." A longstanding example of this phenomenon, he said, is folk art, which is dominated by older adults-including many who were late bloomers, such as painter Grandma Moses.


Joining Cohen-whose research on creativity and aging is described in the article beginning on page 1 of this issue (see "Experts Reveal Keys to Brain Health"-were innovators of three bestpractice programs focusing on elders' learning and creativity at home, in the community or on campus.

Sara Peller, associate executive director at Dorot in New York City, quoted an older participant in the organization's University Without Walls (UWW), who commented, "The music uplifted me and carried me all the way to Carnegie Hall. I wish I had dressed better for the occasion-even though I never left my own living room." This program for homebound older adults offers classes over the telephone, such as music and performing arts, visual art, journal writing, play reading and book discussions. In addition, museum educators and docents lead many classes on current exhibits.

Another UWW participant, Peller said, observed, "When I read a poem that I may have read as a young person, I am reminded of how I used to be and who I am now. Some good, some not so good, but it is a connection that I cherish. We not only learn things, but this experience helps us remember our past." UWW classes provide learning materials to homebound elder students, such as binders of art created by local museums. In creative writing classes, students send their work to the teacher, who copies the stories for other students to use in discussions. One teacher holds office hours over the telephone so that students can discuss their work. Besides the programs for frail older adults at home, Dorot offers a chorus called KoI Dorot, intergenerational painting classes, quilting instruction and museum trips.


According to executive director Susan Perlstein, a focus on intergenerational arts programming has especially characterized the work of Elders Share the Arts (ESTA), Brooklyn, N. …