The Intersection of Creativity, Health, and Aging

By Janet Brown from her blog Better Together

On May 1st, I attended a daylong gathering in Washington DC entitled Innovative Crossroads: The Intersection of Creativity, Health and Aging. Supported by MetLife Foundation in collaboration with the National Center for Creative Aging (NCCA), the day was hosted by Grantmakers in Health (GIH) and included health funders as well as members of Grantmakers in the Arts and Grantmakers in Aging. This is a continuation of GIArts work begun with a Thought Leader Forum on Aging a few years ago and collaborative regional workshops planned in conjunction with GIAging and NCCA.

I always feel strange writing all these acronyms and initials when in reality, as we all know, these programs are inspired and administered by people. Rohit Burman (arts) and Barbara Dillon’s (aging) partnership at MetLife Foundation grew to national scale when they brought arts and aging funders together. Gay Hanna, National Center for Creative Aging, has been the driving force of this three-year journey, which now includes health funders. It has also included sessions at each of our national conferences (GIArts, GIAging and GIH), webconferences, Reader articles and the dissemination of research to our members.

There is nothing new about the power of the arts in working with physically and mentally disabled patients. There is nothing new about how the arts entertain, inspire and keep our hands and minds busy when we have retired and remain healthy. Individual artists, paid and unpaid, have been working in these fields since the beginning of time, is my guess. One only needs to witness the simplest of art making to understand its healing power: singing to a child who has hurt her finger to take her mind off the pain, asking a trauma victim to put their feelings in writing or imagery or an Alzheimer patient to describe what they see in a painting, which might, for a moment, give life to memory.

Artists, teachers, researchers and doctors informed our day of learning on May 1st. David Leventhal of the Mark Morris Dance Company, Brooklyn, described their growing Dance for Parkinson’s program, which is now in 60 communities in America. Anne Basting, director of the Center on Age and Community at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, inspired us with research and practice like the award-winning Timeslips Creative Storytelling Project. Dr. Peter Whitehouse, a professor of neurology at Case Western Reserve University, Pittsburgh, discussed our shared mission to provide quality of life and gave us hope that the world of science also has a need for the world of human expression and emotion that are the arts. Sunil Iyengar, director of the Office of Research at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), introduced us to the “Arts and Human Development” research intiative in collaboration with several federal agencies including Health and Human Services, Education, Humanities, National Science Foundation and Institute of Museum and Library Services. Bill O’Brien, Senior Advisor for Innovation Projects at the NEA, explained their work with the Walter Reed Healing Arts Partnership where returning vets are actively engaged in writing projects that are helping them cope with PTSD and issues of war.

I was, once again, amazed by the lack of boundaries of our work. Artists, old and young, rich and poor, professional and amateur, have a place in all our lives from the time our mothers sing us to sleep to how we are memorialized after death. This weekend, I watched  Bill Moyers & Company and was moved to tears when Francine and David Wheeler, whose son Ben died at Sandy Hook, led others in song, accompanied by Peter Yarrow (Peter, Paul and Mary) at a recent concert. Mrs. Wheeler is a music teacher and was the voice for Sandy Hook parents on Presdient Obama's radio message a few weeks ago. To hear “Blowin in the Wind,” with its message of non-violence sung by these parents with the intensity of all the love for their lost child, was extremely powerful.

The power of the arts to heal, to soothe our souls and to make us joyful is obvious to those of us working in the arts world. Community settings like neighborhood centers, hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living centers, schools and churches are perfect homes for artists who engage others in the making of art. Our role as funders is to build infrastructure for those artists and build bridges with our colleagues in other sectors. We should add “shaping healthy cities” to our goals along side economic development. And we should be at the forefront of an explosion of creativity for artists and arts participants as our population ages and as other sectors, like health, seek new solutions and new inspiration.