Studies Suggest There's An Art to Getting Older

By Beth Baker
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 11, 2008

In the Greenbelt Community Center, 25 elders sit in a circle, watching professional storyteller Candace Wolf. She moves around the circle, smiling, giving someone's shoulder a gentle squeeze, making eye contact. The artist, on the faculty of the nonprofit Bethesda-based Arts for the Aging (AFTA), enlists the group's help in creating a story, based on a silly photo she has passed around of a stocky older couple arm-wrestling.

Most of her listeners seem engaged, going along with the gag.

"Why are they wrestling?" Wolf asks.

"He wants to go out to a bar, but she won't let him," one woman suggests.

"She's smarter than he is, too," says another. A man in the circle rolls his eyes.

"Why is he so strong?" Wolf asks.

"Used to work on the railroad," offers another woman.

Before long, a narrative has been spun, with threads offered by participants -- most of them people with dementia or other cognitive problems -- and woven by Wolf. She has adapted her storytelling workshops to this audience because studies suggest that making art, or even listening to music or viewing paintings, supports physical, mental and emotional well-being and eases some symptoms of illness, including dementia.

The idea is gaining traction.

In 2006, artists, policymakers and aging experts held the first-ever national conference on the arts and aging in Newark. Early this year attendance at two "webinars" on creativity and aging, hosted by the National Council on Aging, topped 100, exceeding the organizers' expectations. New York announced a $1 million initiative to connect 57 of the city's arts and cultural organizations to 150 senior centers. And December's move to the District of the National Center for Creative Aging, founded in New York in 2001, promises closer ties with such institutions as George Washington University and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

The movement was bolstered in 2006 by preliminary findings from the federally funded Creativity and Aging Study, suggesting that participating in an arts program may have health benefits for older people.

"We needed this kind of data desperately to prove what we've observed over the years," said Paula Terry, director of the NEA's AccessAbility office, which helps make the arts accessible to veterans, the elderly, the institutionalized and those with disabilities.

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