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The Artful Aging Movement Takes Hold

Boomers tap into the power of the arts to change how we age

By Heidi Raschke

(This article first appeared in Next Avenue's e-book Artful Aging: How Creativity Sparks Vitality and Transforms Lives, which you can download here.)


In the 1960s, boomers changed the world by transforming youth culture. Now they’re set to do it again by transforming the culture of aging.

Philanthropists, scientists, artists and entrepreneurs who are 50+ are redefining what it means to grow old in America, and many of them see the arts as a powerful tool to accomplish that goal.

“I believe very strongly that participation in the arts is important throughout life,” says Ellen Michelson, founder and president of Aroha Philanthropies, which sponsors Next Avenue's Artful Aging special report. Her organization hosted a convening last fall in Minneapolis on the topic: “Artful Aging: The Transformative Power of Creativity.”

“There’s a line I’ve stolen from Hamilton,” Michelson says, quoting the hit Broadway musical. “This is not a moment; this is a movement.”

As artful aging advocates shared insights on the role of arts participation to spark joy and vitality in older adults, it truly did feel like a revolution was underway. And the experience of participants in the event, as well as others who work with older adults, shows that both demand for, and interest in, artful aging are growing.

Programs in Demand

Janet Brown, president of Grantmakers in the Arts, a national association of funders, says her organization has seen a groundswell in interest for creative aging programs during the past five years.

“Two things that are hard to quantify are happening quietly,” she says. “Baby boomers are involving themselves in activities they did in high school, and the current generation will not tolerate the kinds of facilities [nursing homes and senior living facilities] we have now.”

These factors, she says, are going to further drive demand for arts programs and new approaches to housing for older adults. In addition, using arts as a tool in health care is gaining momentum for patients, caregivers and doctors, Brown says. “Science tells us that this kind of programming will keep people healthier,” she notes.

Backed by Research


Julene Johnson is spearheading what is believed to be the largest scientific study in the world on the health benefits of participation in an arts program. An expert in music and social neuroscience and the associate director at the University of California, San Francisco’s Institute for Health & Aging, Johnson says what makes the arts so powerful is that they have the ingredients for:

  • Challenging the mind and body
  • Creating a deep level of engagement
  • Offering a way to express and share culture
  • Allowing for emotional expression
  • Providing the opportunity to create beauty

Her Community of Voices study of more than 400 diverse adults hypothesizes what smaller studies have hinted at: that participation in community choirs reduces the risk of poor health outcomes. Results are expected in fall 2016.

The Next No-Brainer

The arts are accessible, relatively inexpensive to deliver, reach people of different socioeconomic and racial and ethnic backgrounds and can help vulnerable adults to age in a creative and graceful way, Johnson says. “We need more creative ways to improve the quality of aging,” she adds.

It’s not going to happen overnight, of course. Thirty years ago, Michelson points out, exercise equipment wasn’t common in residences for older adults. Now it’s a no-brainer. People demanded it, and the culture changed.

That’s starting to happen with artful aging.

“It takes a mind change. That’s all,” Brown says. “It’s going to happen because it’s low-hanging fruit and the demo is going to insist on it.”

Heidi Raschke is a longtime journalist and editor who previously was the Executive Editor of Mpls-St. Paul Magazine and Living and Learning Editor at Next Avenue. Currently, she runs her own content strategy and development consultancy. Read More
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