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Healthy and Creative Aging
Laura Day Giarolo, Manager of Education & Community Engagement, OPERA America
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Original Content4/28/2011

Editor's Note:
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Baby boomers are hitting retirement and a great shift in the American population is underway. By 2050, the U.S. Census Bureau has projected that older adults (ages 65 and up) will number 88.5 million; nearly one in five Americans will be over age 65 by the year 2030. While this statistic may send some of our marketing colleagues into a quiet panic over the need to develop a new and younger audience, it opens up a whole new area of arts education: creative aging and true lifelong learning.

In Creativity Matters: Arts and Aging in America, Susan Perlstein and Gay Hanna pinpoint the field of creative aging at the intersection of the arts, aging, education, health and humanities, and emphasize the need for lifelong learning in and through the arts in order to promote better health and well-being among older adults. They cite a landmark multi-year study by Dr. Gene Cohen that included oral histories and a range of arts disciplines (such as painting, pottery, dance, music, poetry and drama) and found that participants in the arts programs had significantly better health and increased levels of social engagement than their non-participating counterparts, while requiring fewer doctor visits and less medication. The potential impact of this is huge: a modest investment in creative aging programs could multiply into estimated savings of more than a billion dollars a year in Medicare costs. (For details, see page four of Creativity Matters.)

The senior centers of yesteryear invited high school choristers to sing Christmas carols to the bedridden and called it an intergenerational arts program; Bingo was a primary example of social interaction for their residents. Today's organizations catering to older adults increasingly embrace the principles of creative aging and provide in-depth, sequential learning programs that actively engage participants and encourage them to explore and develop new skills. These programs combine the human need to learn and express oneself creatively with reminiscence activities designed to meet psychoanalyst Erik Erikson's final stage of aging (Integrity vs. Despair), in which an individual must "examine one's past, come to terms with one's losses, and celebrate one's successes to achieve a sense of integrity."

Arts organizations looking to begin or further their work in this area may be interested in Creativity Matters: The Arts and Aging Toolkit. The Toolkit is available in full online, and provides detailed advice on how to construct and implement successful programs for older adults. Additional information on the arts and aging is available from the National Guild for Community Arts Education, the National Center for Creative Aging and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, which partnered to create the Toolkit in 2006.

Lifetime Arts, based in White Plains, NY, provides professional development opportunities for teaching artists and arts administrators, and coordinates creative aging partnerships between New York area libraries and individual teaching artists. Lifetime Arts is also in the process of assembling a national Creative Aging Teaching Artists Database to identify, recruit and train artists to work in this emerging area of arts education. Teaching Artists with demonstrated experience in designing and executing creative aging programs are eligible for listing on the organization's Creative Aging Teaching Artists Roster, an online directory that is searchable by organizations looking to create and implement lifelong learning programs in their communities.

OPERA America will be piloting a creative aging program in New York City beginning this fall, and we invite you to explore the opportunities for this exciting and rewarding work within your own community. For more information, please contact Laura Day Giarolo at or calling 212-796-8620, ext. 206.
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