Wider Scope

The Art of Aging

experts say involvement in arts keeps you young

Jenna Campbell and Kinzy Janssen, photos by Sarah Word |

A watercolor class taught by Judy Proett at the L.E. Phillips Senior Center. Recent research suggests a positive correlation between health and participation in the arts.

On the Wednesday evening before her Thursday watercolor class at the senior center, Judy Proett is “pumped.” Proett is the teacher of 10 to 11 similarly eager students in their 60s, 70s, and 80s – the vast majority of whom have never created art before, in any capacity.

Brushstrokes aside, Proett’s students may be unaware of what their paintbrushes are achieving. With each swathe of color, Proett’s students could very well be improving their memory, cognition, mood, and physical health.

In recent years, a number of research studies have been performed that suggest a positive correlation between health and participation in the arts, specifically in the senior population. In 2002, Gene Cohen – Director for the Center on Aging, Health, & Humanities – recruited 300 people between the ages 65 and 103. Half the participants said they were involved with an art program, whether it be singing, creative writing, poetry, painting, or jewelry making. The other half was not.

Extensive observation followed. After two years, Cohen found that those in the arts group reported better overall physical health. On depression and loneliness scales, those participating in art had better scores. But the results went beyond the qualitative. The painters and singers and writers reported fewer doctor visits and fewer falls than the others.

Proett, a senior herself at 62, is not surprised by the studies. Over five years of teaching at LE Phillips Senior Center, her observational evidence is substantial.

“As we get older, we’re not always sure that we can be successful at anything. We’re not feeling successful,” Proett explains. “Depression is high in our senior population. But everyone wants to be validated. And they get validation from me and the other students. “

Other mediums, too, have been making an impact on bodies and minds. For years, the practice of music therapy has been tapping into this link.

    Lee Anna Rasar, Director and Professor of music therapy at UW-Eau Claire, explains that when we listen to music, we have biochemical responses. It stimulates the seat of our emotions. It even increases the flow of gastric juices, thus aiding digestion.

As part of the music therapy program at UWEC, students take their six “modalities” (listening, discussion, composition, movement, singing, and playing) to local nursing homes, dementia units, and, sometimes, jails. In a series of programming with adult women, Rasar and students focused on getting inmates to move and exercise to music. During the program, jail caretakers noticed the women needed less medication than when they weren’t dancing. Simply put, less stress meant fewer meds.

Though she wasn’t performing a study, Rasar’s work reflected that of Cohen, whose 2002study found even though medication use increased with age in both groups, the arts group went from using 6.1 drugs to seven drugs, while the control group went from using 5.7 drugs to 8.3.

Sadly, community members will no longer benefit from hands-on clinical practices sanctioned by the university. Due to budget cuts, music therapy students admitted in 2009 will be the last additions to the popular program.

Since Cohen’s federally funded study, spin-off studies have increased. In 2006, artists, policymakers, and aging experts held the first-ever national conference on the arts and aging in Newark. But, while the evidence is encouraging, it necessitates a question: why?

Proett suggests a few reasons for the healing power of art. For one thing, art can be a social activity. Interacting with like-minded strangers in a classroom can be especially freeing for those who are more timid, rigid, and detail-oriented. In fact, one particular group of ladies who hit if off in Proett’s class formed their own weekly watercolor group. Another reason is that changing dynamics are rampant in the lives of seniors, and art facilitates a much-needed sense of control. Holding that paintbrush, they are free agents, no longer downtrodden or powerless.