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Involvement in challenging participatory arts programs has a positive effect on physical health, mental health, and social functioning in older adults, regardless of their ability.

Even attending arts events is linked to better health outcomes. The arts can improve bonds between caregivers and their patients, deepen connections between staff working in clinical settings (and thus enhance the patient experience), and give family members a new way to reach out to an older person suffering from dementia and other conditions.

Grantmakers can foster the incorporation of the arts into health and wellness efforts in numerous ways. Art programs not only enrich the lives of older adults who may no longer have the ability to seek out arts and culture on their own, but also benefit health care professionals, families, and caregivers. Here are a handful of efforts worth emulating:

Developed by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Center on Age & Community, TimeSlips is a creative storytelling method that is used with people with dementia and their caregivers. TimeSlips offers training, certification, and consulting for facilitators and organizations to implement this improvisational storytelling method in a variety of settings. The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation is a sponsor of the program. Bader Philanthropies and the Retirement Research Foundation supported the creation of Timeslips’ website and Online Training system.

Tremble Clefs is a nationwide program for people with Parkinson’s disease and their care partners. The program establishes singing groups in which participants can help address voice and communications problems through breathing, stretching and posture activities, vocal exercise, rhythm and movement, and a strong social support system. The Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust supported the program’s Arizona chapter with two grants totaling $52,000.

Many older adults do not have the opportunity to attend arts programs in their community due to poor health, financial costs, and other factors. In the NEA’s Staying Engaged report, nearly 37 percent of older adults surveyed reported it was difficult to participate in the arts. Kairos Dance Theatre’s Dancing Heart, an evidence-based dance program and a best practice model for working with frail elders, holds weekly workshops at long-term care facilities, adult day cares, and senior community centers, working most often with older adults diagnosed with dementia. Older adults, family members, and caregivers co-create a dance—one that is inclusive of all ages, all bodies, and many different ways of moving, through movement improvisation, the interweaving of dance and story, and the collaborative development of choreography that draws on their memories and life experiences. Through this program, the older adults show improvements in flexibility, energy, balance, memory, and socialization.

Arts for the Aging runs a program called Joy in Generation in the Washington, DC region, which offers one-hour arts sessions in small groups to frail and vulnerable elders. These experiences are self-contained, exposing participants to rotating artists and media each week, including healing movement, drawing and painting, music, art history, creative writing, storytelling, expressive arts, poetry, dance and movement, and musical theater.

CJE SeniorLife based in Chicago, IL, runs the Culture Bus Program. A partnership between CJE and Northwestern Hospital’s Cognitive Neurology Clinic, this program offers people with early stage Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias opportunities for stimulation, education, and recreation through art, drama, history, music, dance, architecture, and more. It also offers family caregivers respite through a group session and a hands-on creative arts activity. A $20,000 grant from the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation helped support this program.

Veterans and military personnel can be served in a variety of ways. The National Center for Creative Aging (NCCA) worked with the DC Veterans Affairs Medical Center (DC VAMC) to implement several sustainable programs at the VA, including arts and healing programming for veterans, classes focused on the visual arts, story, and drama, the TimeSlips program, and a gallery space created to display veterans and visiting artists’ work. Internship opportunities for local university art students are being created to increase community connections. Planning is underway to assist other VAMC and outpatient clinics start, grow, and sustain healing and arts programs.

What to fund

  • Longitudinal research with rigorous study designs to test the connection between arts participation and better health outcomes in older adults
  • Evidence-based arts programs that support healthy aging and brain fitness
  • Arts classes at a senior and community center led by a professional artist
  • A gallery exhibit in a long-term care setting
  • Professional development for health care providers including hospice and long-term care providers
  • Arts programming in respite programs for families and health care professionals
  • Creative writing and poetry programs for veterans served by community clinics
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