As we age, we take stock of the past and question what the future holds. The arts can enable such introspection, whether it's painting, sculpture, literature, music, theatre or cinema. We feel the urge to try new things, but also to leave our mark and find meaning in our lives.
It is well known that the arts help to improve social engagement and well-being among older adults, and can reduce certain health problems such as hypertension, anxiety and depressive symptoms.(1; 2; 3) Social movements, but also programs and policies, have emerged to increase participation in art therapy, and to provide artistic activities designed to foster social interaction.(2)
Could we also use the arts to share information and knowledge related to aging? Can the arts change the negative perceptions of health professionals or the general public towards aging (or towards older adults suffering from debilitating illnesses, like dementia)?
What the research tells us
A recent systematic review examined 11 scientific articles to understand how the arts are used to raise awareness about different phenomena associated with aging, including dementia, the lives of centenarians, widowhood, social isolation, chronic diseases, and frailty.(4) All the artistic approaches studied in these articles have incorporated a narrative component, most often through theater.
The review revealed that the arts have great potential to inform the public, researchers and health professionals about aging-related issues. Professionals and researchers could use the arts to identify the problems that older adults face and solutions to address them (for example, plays triggering discussions between actors, the public and professionals about aging-related problems, like the risks and consequences of falls). The arts could also be used to share knowledge, change attitudes and behaviors, or combat ageism (for example, creating literary and visual works depicting the lived experiences of centenarians, or highlighting the negative perceptions that some professionals and the public may have towards older adults suffering from debilitating illnesses).
In many studies, life stories (particularly in theater) are frequently used to discuss health issues, social isolation, illness, and life experiences related to aging. Theater appears particularly promising, given its capacity to share clear key messages based on action, interaction and reaction to life events. The studies also indicate that such stories can be used to share research evidence with the public and professionals, or to raise awareness and change attitudes. Studies that have examined the used of arts in the context of older adults living with dementia (and their caregivers) have found that sharing stories and life experiences offers a real collaborative exchange that everyone can benefit from.
Beyond recreational activities
The arts should not be seen as a mere form of recreational activities. It is possible to take advantage of the arts to improve well-being, of course, but also to share information and knowledge in order to promote healthy aging. Let’s encourage older adults, caregivers, professionals and researchers express themselves creatively and artistically about aging-related issues.