Creativity in aging is chocolate to the brain.
– Melissa Batchelor, PhD, RN, FNP-BC, FGSA, FAAN
If you wish to maintain health and longevity as you age, it may be helpful to include a special muscle group in your workout: your creative muscles.
According to ongoing studies, creativity is essential for healthy aging. Engaging in creative activities like singing, theater, and visual art may help older people feel better. Further, creativity, linked to the personality characteristic of openness, can help people live longer.
In this episode of This Is Getting Old: Moving Towards An Age-Friendly World, we’re privileged to have Teresa Bonner, the Executive Director of Aroha Philanthropies. Join us as we share meaningful conversations about creative aging and how it sparks joy, connection, and purpose among older adults.
Part One Of ‘Creative Aging Sparks Joy, Connection, Purpose’
Aroha Philanthropies And Creative Aging
Creativity is hardly the exclusive province of youth.
It can blossom at any age—and in fact, it can bloom with more depth and richness in older adults because their
vast stores inform it of knowledge and experience.
– Dr. Gene Cohen, Geriatric Psychiatrist
These words of Dr. Gene Cohen, the founding Director of The George Washington University’s Center for Aging, Health and Humanities (for which I am the current Director), is Aroha Philanthropies’ motivation in advocating creativity in aging. According to Dr. Cohen’s landmark report, 85% of older adults are community-based, are aging well, can learn, be creative, and be so much more.
With these visions in mind, Aroha Philanthropies are on a mission to expand creative aging programs nationally. They’re engaged in funded training for organizations to learn how to make successful programs for older adults—to learn an art form over time and to get better and better as they learn from a teaching artist.
Furthermore, Aroha Philanthropies has built national partnerships with the American Alliance of Museums, including botanical gardens, science museums, etc., to offer creative programs for older adults. This partnership has called on museums of all kinds around the country to develop creative aging programs and actively work against ageism in their institutions.
What’s even more promising is that they’ve tapped on The National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, where they’ve funded 36 state programs to develop and/or expand creative aging.
Aroha Philanthropies’ efforts in evangelizing about the benefits of getting involved in the arts were not in vain. What they’ve learned from almost 2,000 participant survey responses is that after engaging in creative aging programs, older adults;
- Developed relationships
- Learned various art forms
- Became cognitively and socially engaged
- Made meaningful social connections through art-making
Creative aging programs were highly effective at helping older adults grow artistically, mentally, and socially. 75% of 2,000 older adults reported that their mental engagement had increased because of taking creative classes.
– Teresa Bonner, Executive Director of
How Do You Define Creative Aging?
Creative aging is about learning an art form over time in a supportive environment. Such a supportive environment allows older adults to grow and become creative, more artistic and increase their social connections and social network. It is a broad topic that includes everything from programs designed to provide help for people suffering from diseases such as dementia to programs for caregivers who help with art therapy programs.
The learning and connection, and relationship building happen through the work of the teaching artist. In part, these teaching artists know how to have conversations with people and generate conversations among them through the art form.
That’s the heart of successful creative aging programs. Older adults are learning over time from a teaching artist; they get better and make new friends.
Examples of the classes offered in creative aging programs are:
- Mask making
- Opera singing
- Learning graffiti
- Short Video Filming
- Drumming and beating
- Technical and historical aspects
- Choir and theatre arts performing
- Weaving where they also know about the history and the people
What Do You Consider To Be A Supportive Environment?
Supportive environments for creative aging provides opportunities for those who are 55 and better to access and benefit from arts programming designed to teach older Americans an art form over time. Aroha Philanthropies want to expand these opportunities through increased investment in creative aging programs.
Part Two Of ‘Creative Aging Sparks Joy, Connection, Purpose’
Elements That A Thriving Creative Aging Program Have
As a safe space for being creative, a successful creative aging program is:
- Designed To Meet The Express Needs And Interests Of Older Adults. Rather than assuming that older adults don’t have much capacity, they’re allowed to come together and have rich stories to share. They learn new skills, get involved in new activities, and enhance their own lived experience
- They Are Led By Teaching Artists. Teaching artists are professional, working artists who are also skilled in arts education. They create space for participants to offer feedback to one another, discuss their work, talk about memories, and talk about dreams. It’s a two-way process, which is an essential aspect of community building among participants. Teaching artists are part of the secret sauce; they create that chocolate for the brain!
- Experiential And Sequential. A successful creative aging program is experiential—they’re more hands-on. At the same time, it is sequential, meaning older adults learn to create over time. They’re not just learning about the great masters of the art; they’re making the art themselves. Moreover, each class builds on the skills they learned in the prior classes. Essentially, these are often so interesting to older adults.
- Builds Social Interaction And Engagement. In every creative aging, session participants are encouraged to share their experiences and memories. They discuss their work and offer feedback, which is an excellent way for people to begin building their social network.
- Celebrate Achievements. The common theme of successful creative aging programs is the celebration of the participants’ creations. The culminating activity is open to friends, family, and sometimes the public. This allows friends, family, and others in the community to see older adults in a new light. These are the kinds of things that move us from seeing an older adult as old and seeing them as a person and creative individual.
The financial burden of social isolation for older adults
is at 6.7 billion dollars because social isolation produces significant negative health impacts. Creative aging programs are a societal benefit in addition to an individual and community benefit. There are all kinds of great reasons that creative aging should be going forward all over the country.
– Teresa Bonner, Executive Director of
What Are The Benefits Of Being Part Of A Creative Community?
Creative aging helps older Americans combat social isolation, an increasing problem for America’s growing older population, especially throughout the pandemic.
Furthermore, doing the celebrations, sharing what is created, and building connections are solid and powerful pieces of combating ageism. We see an older adult as a person—not like an older person—a person who’s had a whole life of experiences.
The Power Of Connecting Through Art
When you’re working through the art form, you are vulnerable. Creative aging is not like having a cup of coffee after choir practice. It’s where you’re talking about your own life, dreams, and interests, which naturally leads to relationships among people that can be important.
Arts are a connecting point in a time where the connection is essential. Older artists find joy, purpose, community, and creativity in these programs.
How Do You Find A Creative Art + Aging Group In Your Area?
There are many resources for learning about Creative Aging. If you’re interested, you can check on the following …
- Lifetime Arts – which provides consulting and training on how to run creative aging programs.
- Creative Aging Resource – a rich website devoted to creative aging, also developed by Lifetime Arts
- National Assembly of State Art Agencies – They offered grant programs this year and awarded funds to 36 states that are either developing creative aging programs or want to create them and wish to learn about them.
- The American Alliance of Museums – They had put out a significant report calling on museums to ethically and strategically prioritize developing creative aging programs that work with older adults differently.
- Countering Isolation with Creativity
About Teresa Bonner, Executive Director, Aroha Philanthropies:
Teresa Bonner brings more than thirty years of professional experience in philanthropy, foundation, and nonprofit leadership to her role as Executive Director for Aroha Philanthropies. She is a frequent presenter on philanthropy and creative aging, including sessions at the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, Grantmakers in the Arts, Grantmakers in Aging, Americans for the Arts, Philanthropy New York, and the American Society on Aging.
Teresa previously served as Director of the U.S. Bancorp Foundation. She managed $20 million in Foundation grantmaking annually. She led the company’s community relations activities, the Piper Jaffray Foundation, and two nonprofit organizations, Milkweed Editions and the Library Foundation of Hennepin County. Arts and cultural programs have long been a significant focus of her professional experience and a personal passion. She is a principal in Family Philanthropy Advisors, with offices in Minneapolis and the Bay Area.
Teresa graduated magna cum laude from the University of North Dakota with a degree in journalism. After completing Law School at the University of Minnesota, she clerked for the Hon. Gerald Heaney of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit and was a partner at the Minneapolis law firm of Lindquist and Vennum before moving to the nonprofit sector.
I earned my Bachelor of Science in Nursing (‘96) and Master of Science in Nursing (‘00) as a Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) from the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) School of Nursing (SON). I truly enjoy working with the complex medical needs of older adults. I worked full-time for five years as FNP in geriatric primary care across many long-term care settings (skilled nursing homes, assisted living, home and office visits) then transitioned into academic nursing in 2005, joining the faculty at UNCW SON as a lecturer.
I obtained my PhD in Nursing and a post-Master’s Certificate in Nursing Education from the Medical University of South Carolina College of Nursing (2011) ) and then joined the faculty at Duke University School of Nursing as an Assistant Professor. My family moved to northern Virginia in 2015 and led to me joining the faculty at George Washington University (GW) School of Nursing in 2018 as a (tenured) Associate Professor where I am also the Director of the GW Center for Aging, Health and Humanities.
Find out more about her work HERE.