THE BLOG
09/06/2013 03:22 pm ET | Updated Nov 06, 2013

What's Art Got to Do With It?

To paraphrase rock and R&B legend Tina Turner (an artist who will turn 74 this fall), "what's art got to do with it? ("It" refers here to aging.) This question arose after I attended a conference on aging, health, and the arts and was sharing my excitement with some colleagues in the aging services field. After listening politely for a while, one of them finally blurted out what the others may also have been thinking: "What's art got to do with aging?"

I could have written this off as the comment of an unrepentant philistine, except that I have to admit, to my embarrassment, that most of my life I have shared this doubt. I have always worked on the health care side of aging, trying to address the needs of those with serious and debilitating illness. Most of the time, those of us associated with aging services focus on meeting the needs of older people who are facing major life challenges. Which is probably why, all too often, the attitude in health care settings is that arts programs are "nice" rather than necessary. As CEO of Grantmakers In Aging I have the opportunity to see many of these programs in development and in action, and I have to say that the great work being done in this area has proved me wrong.

The power of art at any age

EngAGE is one such effort. It brings together professional artists, both old and young, to train thousands of seniors living in affordable senior apartment communities in Southern California. EngAGE takes a whole-person approach by providing arts, wellness, lifelong learning, community building and intergenerational programs. It is serious and demanding; the expectation is that participants give everything they have at the highest level they can achieve. The program has been a phenomenal success, almost tripling the number of older residents who are involved in activities. Many times, people who hear this story think that this only works in high-end retirement communities for wealthy people, but this is not the case: EngAGE participants have an average annual income of $10,800 per year and two-thirds are racial and ethnic minorities.

Some programs are directed at people with physical challenges. In 2001, the Mark Morris Dance Group, one of the pre-eminent contemporary dance companies in the world, teamed with the Brooklyn Parkinson's Group to create Dance for PD, a rigorous, creative dance class for those with Parkinson's Disease. Through a network of partners and associates, it provides programs in more than 100 other communities in eight countries around the world. Dance for PD works with those whose illness makes movement more difficult, yet it is never thought of as "therapy." Instead, it allows participants to explore the range of physical and creative possibilities that are still very much open to them. The Dance for PD motto: "We may slow it down, but we never dumb it down."

Another innovative program, Meet Me at MOMA, makes art accessible to people with dementia and their caregivers. Developed by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, it has now expanded nationwide. By listening and encouraging those with dementia to engage with great works of art, the program involves them in a process that leads to greater connection to their own creative side and also provides support for caregivers.

Perhaps the most dreaded possibility of old age is dementia, especially Alzheimer's disease, but here too the arts make a difference. TimeSlips is an improvisational storytelling method that replaces the pressure to remember with the freedom to imagine. By providing light-hearted photo prompts that help people with dementia invent original stories, TimeSlips inspires people to share the gift of their imaginations, helps others see beyond loss to recognize the strengths of people with dementia, and improves the quality of life of people with dementia and those who care for them.

The arts can be used to enhance the lives of older people who are often the most difficult to reach. More great examples can be found at the National Center for Creative Aging, in the Resource Guide of the National Endowment for the Arts, and in the section of our own Grantmakers In Aging website devoted to aging and the arts.

Beyond bingo, toward greater quality of life

"Now is the time to be part of the process, part of the solution: the 'beyond bingo' generation is here."

This call to action is found in Creativity Matters: The Arts and Aging Toolkit , which was co-sponsored by The National Guild for Community Arts Education, the National Center for Creative Aging, and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. For funders, it explains, opportunities for impact abound in aging and the arts. For further inspiration, turn to Thought Leader Forum on Arts & Aging, a white paper that grew out of a conference co-sponsored in 2011 by Grantmakers in the Arts, Grantmakers In Aging and the National Center for Creative Aging with support from the MetLife Foundation. Among the ambitious goals it sets for funders and practitioners: "a campaign to promote the arts as an asset in building livable communities for the aging."

For those who work in traditional aging services, there is another equally important message here: the need to be able to work with artists of all kinds. Creative people are creative, and not just in the sense of creating art. They have much to teach us: how to work in a world where finding audiences, raising money, and carrying through complex tasks to completion are as essential as the creative impulse. They can show us new and different ways to provide life-affirming resources to those at every stage of the aging process.

And that is what art has to do with aging.