Magazine article Aging Today

Battling Ageism Creatively, through the Arts

Magazine article Aging Today

Battling Ageism Creatively, through the Arts

Article excerpt

Over the past decade that I have been working in the arts with older adults, it has been frustrating to hear elders say they were too old to participate in art programs, or that they couldn't learn anything new. Defeated before even stepping into an art classroom, these older adults had come to believe and, more significantly, to accept that they no longer had anything to contribute. These men and women had internalized ageism.

Eliminating ageism is hard work. It is woven into the fabric of our lives, making it difficult to identify. But the arts are uniquely equipped to fray ageism's negative stereotypes-especially the insidiousness of internalized ageism.

The Arts-an Antidote to Internalized Ageism?

Ageism, as defined by Robert N. Butler, is a combination of prejudicial attitudes toward older people and toward aging. Operating at every level of society, it remains a significant problem. Research by Levy published in The Gerontologist in 2001 (goo.gl/fHqPlq) suggests that after a lifetime of exposure to our culture's age stereotypes, older individuals direct these stereotypes inward.

Unfortunately, negative stereotypes are much more common than positive images; researchers found that the effects of internalizing these stereotypes were so powerful that older adults incorporated them into their current and future self-views, writes Levy. One antidote is to engage older adults in the arts, because the arts (visual, performing, literary) enable older participants to imagine the unimaginable, to share their stories, to unblock fears and insecurities and to ignite the passion to create. From the viewer's standpoint, the arts can show older adults through a different lens.

To tackle the negative models of aging, specifically the images our society holds of older adults as needy, unhappy, inactive and less useful than their younger counterparts, the National Center for Creative Aging (NCCA), a creative aging services organization, in 2015 partnered with DSM Nutritional Products on a public campaign called Beautiful Minds.

The aim of this traveling photography exhibit was to change the biased perceptions people had of aging by showcasing charismatic, talented, playful and determined older men and women who were artistically engaged with life. Pei Chang Wang, a Chinese opera singer, painter, musician and volunteer, was one such Beautiful Mind. At age 90 she continues to engage in her lifelong practice as an opera singer and painter to keep, as she said, her "inner spark of independence alive."

The Benefits of Evidence-Based Arts Programming

The NCCA is leading the way in such efforts. Our members, which include a wide variety of arts organizations, healthcare facilities, museums, universities and social service agencies, are at the forefront of creating new models through the arts that inspire and support people as they grow older.

NCCA member agencies, such as Arts for the Aging, engage older adults in the Washington, D.C., area who are living with health-related challenges, in professionally led arts programs that "capitalize on assets that remain, not on what [has] been lost," wrote Jane Brody in a March 2016 New York Times Well blog post (goo. …

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