Creative Aging: The Best of Science and Art

Imagine an organization whose sole focus is the creative well-being of seniors. The National Center for Creative Aging recently celebrated its 10th anniversary by holding its first Leadership Exchange and Conference.
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Imagine an organization whose sole focus is the creative well-being of seniors. The National Center for Creative Aging recently celebrated its 10th anniversary by holding its first Leadership Exchange and Conference. Its goal was to bring together the latest, greatest in science research and expressive arts designed to ensure that baby-boomers and earlier generations have the cognitive stimulation and creative opportunities necessary to live a maximally stimulating and satisfying life.

I had the good fortune to be a part of this extraordinary event. As I waited for the opening talk to commence, just as I pulled out my notebook and pen, two men propelled on to the stage dressed in form fitting pants and similarly snug tee shirts, wearing the soft-soled shoes characteristic of jazz and modern dance performance. "Curious," I observed. The noticeably older man, white haired and soft-spoken, began to gesture, recite prose and dance in carefully placed steps within a small radius. Following close behind was a contrastingly young man repeating the same words and routine. A stark, emotional, and powerful message about creativity, the ageless human body and the aging paradox took place with little need for an introduction or explanation. This experience served to transport the diverse audience to the very same page, and thus the keynote talk began.

"Leadership Exchange" was a fitting title for the central day of the NCCA conference, held in Washington, D.C. in mid June. According to the program description, "each session is born of vision, practice, collaboration, and a good dose of improvisation." Rather than the science-heavy meetings I typically attend, this day promised and delivered through engaging and sometimes spontaneous material that melded the art and the science of creative aging. Here's a sampling of what I heard, saw and learned.

Marc Agronin, M.D., geriatric psychiatrist, took a broad-brush approach in his keynote address and paid tribute to Gene Cohen, M.D., Ph.D., who's writing and philosophy helped shape NCCA's early vision and mission. To my delight, Agronin concentrated on the strengths of aging: neuroplasticity, maturity, and creativity. He made the point that "Not in spite of age, but because of aging we become more creative." Gay Hannah, NCCA Executive Director echoed his views when she expressed the societal goal, and professional need, to shift from loss to the "dynamic potential of aging." The tone for the day was set.

While we intuitively know that theater classes, modern dance and memoir writing programs provide cognitive stimulation, (See my earlier blogs at HuffPost50 on these subjects) it is nonetheless necessary to have proof through double-blind experiments and longitudinal studies in order to provide the rationale for adoption by organizations that require funding for creativity platforms that work.

There was no shortage of experimental designs. One program featured a National Institute of Health sponsored, 5-year study at the University of California San Francisco, under the supervision of Julene Johnson, Ph.D., where seniors commit to singing in a chorus for a year.

Many of the presentations were primarily creativity/arts based and fun not only for participants back home where the classes are based, but also for conference attendees who got to experience some hands-on, tactile activities--movement and dance, painting and poetry-making, among others.

Widening the scope of programming still further, presentations about residential communities and whole cities committed to seniors and the arts presented their innovative ideas. Tim Carpenter touted the benefits of living in a low income, apartment complex designed around senior artists. He created the first of these projects in Burbank, CA and the format has begun to catch on around the country. Tim described one of his residents who came to his Senior Artist's Colony with an idea to write a short story, but no training or history as a writer. Her story led to a screenplay, directed by her, and later a documentary about her!

Now consider a whole city catering to the cognitive and creative needs of its older residents. Margaret Neal, Ph.D., of Portland State University said that her city in Oregon wondered, "What characteristics make a city feel age-friendly?" This question led to the goal of trying to make it happen--focusing on the strengths of seniors, not their weaknesses. New York City is trying to do something similar by placing artists at senior residences throughout the city where they can work, rent-free in exchange for teaching. Over 1000 such classes were offered in 2013. The program will be extended to 50 more residences in 2015!

There is no doubt that creative endeavors enhance the quality of life. As the author of The Vintage Years: Finding Your Inner Artist (Writer, Musician, Visual Artist) After Sixty, I was excited to see that so many of my colleagues were in agreement, sending a similar message, in a variety of ways.

As seniors, we live in the best of times. Given our financial and political clout, we are a force to be reckoned with. Our needs and concerns are finally being heard because Boomers demand not just additional years but more meaningful ones.

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