Artful Aging


by By Barbara Schuetze /

Posted on May 1, 2009 at 11:13 AM

Updated Thursday, Nov 12 at 1:53 PM

About the Author

Barbara Schuetze is a Portland, Ore., freelance writer who specializes in health and wellness topics. She has written for most of the major health systems in Oregon and Southwest Washington, and her work has appeared in magazines, newspapers and on the Web. She has been writing professionally since 1983.

Taking watercolor classes, joining a poetry workshop or studying the piano aren't just enjoyable pursuits. They may improve your health in later years. That's right. Research indicates that creative outlets benefit an older adult's mind, body and spirit.

The Creativity and Aging Study, conducted at the George Washington University Center on Health, Aging & Humanities, followed the overall health, mental health, general functioning, and sense of well-being in older people participating in arts programs. Activities included painting, pottery, dance, music, poetry, drama and more. Results revealed that the participants in arts programs fared significantly better in all areas studied than individuals who were not involved in these programs. Other nationally recognized studies report similar benefits.

Elizabeth Scholze Schmidt, director of Oasis in Eugene, Ore., a non-profit educational program for mature adults, believes that creativity strengthens the brain. "Learning something new, whether it's in dance, art, music, writing, etc., helps you create new neural pathways and stave off losing neural pathways," says Schmidt. And, she adds, "The more brain connections you make, the healthier it is for you."

Arts classes at Oasis are continually popular because people are always looking to try something new, Schmidt reports. Oasis offers free classes to adults age 50  and older in the Eugene and Portland, Ore., metro areas.

In Washington's Puget Sound area, the Seniors Making Art program offers older adults a variety of free classes to get started on expressing their artistic creativity. Seattle glass artist Dale Chihuly, inspired by his mother, founded the program to enhance the lives of seniors by learning art. According to Chihuly, Seniors Making Art shows seniors how to express their feelings, memories and life experiences through art by encouragement and example.

"Classes are taught by local artists who are skilled in art, but also know how to build enthusiasm and confidence in older adults," says Caryn Roth, program director for Seniors Making Art. "We offer free classes in a number of artistic mediums, including painting, sculpture, mixed media, poetry, creative writing, and more." Classes are taught at retirement communities, senior centers, hospitals, schools and other locations.

Edmond, Wash., resident Rita Salvador, 72, has been taking classes through Seniors Making Art since1998. "When I retired, I wanted to explore my artistic self," says Salvador. "Seniors Making Art helped me overcome my fear that I wasn't good enough, and allowed me to try many different creative modes."   For Salvador, exploring art through watercolor, clay, mixed-media classes and more has given her the opportunity to express herself and improve her physical, mental and spiritual well-being. "Medication and surgery have helped me, but creativity is another component of healing," she says. Pursuing art has also helped Salvador find balance and stability in her life.

For seniors who hesitate to take arts classes because they worry about their creative ability, Salvador advises, "Don't think about it--just do it!"

Taking classes and creating art also allows older adults to make valuable contributions to the community by sharing their years of experience and wisdom through various modes of artistic expression. In arts classes, you have a chance to socialize with like-minded people, get feedback and encourage other seniors exploring their creativity.

Not Just for SeniorsAfter being diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer 10 years ago, Portland social worker Wendy Talbot, now 57, decided that she needed to engage in activities that were more creative. "Things felt out of control," she recalls from the time of her illness, "and I had a strong desire to create something new, something beautiful, to help combat my sense of loss."

Talbot took her first painting class at an artist's home because that seemed like a non-threatening way to do it. Her passion for making art has flourished since then. "I've taken many types of art classes at our local community arts center and find that it's healing and regenerative to be creative," says Talbot. "I'm in the here and now when I'm making art." 

For Talbot, the joy of creating art has helped reduce stress and build self-esteem, and the classroom setting provides social contact and inspiration from others.

Self-expression can have physical benefits, too. A recent study, conducted at the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center and published in The Oncologist, demonstrated that artistic expression, particularly writing therapy, has a positive impact on patients. In fact, those who wrote down their thoughts about their illness reported a better physical quality of life three weeks later.

Lola Broomberg, a mental health counselor affiliated with Artists' Counseling Services in Eugene, Ore., encourages everyone--no matter what your age--to: "Step toward what you think will brighten your world, [and] explore creative ways to find your own truth and share it with others."

Remember, there's a lot to be gained from creative pursuits: The process of being involved in the arts in any way can help replenish your mind, body and spirit. And--who knows?--you may find your inner Picasso at the local community college painting class. Whatever your talent level, though, you'll still be getting creative about wellness.

Check out local offerings on the Internet or contact community centers, colleges, health systems, senior centers, and arts organizations to find free or affordable classes in the arts that are a good match for you.