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Creativity Matters: The Arts and Aging Toolkit
photo of two men and one woman dancing (PARADIGM)



Chapter 1: Understanding the Context for Arts and Aging Programs

I feel blessed to have found something at this juncture of my life—something that not only fills my heart and soul and challenges me, but something I can do for the rest of my life. It was the turning point in my life. Storyteller, Stagebridge Senior Theatre Company

Today, we have an opportunity to advance the arts and aging field. Susan Perlstein, founder of the National Center for Creative Aging (NCCA), describes the state of the field in the first years of the 21st century:

Professionals in gerontology, social work, education, and the arts have developed a keen interest in the theory and practice of creative work with elders. I attribute this in part to biomedical advances against some of the more debilitating physical conditions of old age. We can now expect to live longer, healthier lives. I also think interest has increased as our baby boomers [born between 1946 and 1964] reach retirement. (1)

Building on theories developed over 40 years by psychologists and gerontologists, the arts and aging field has grown slowly but steadily (See chronology). Psychoanalyst and human development expert Erik Erikson hypothesized in 1967 that human development continues through the lifespan. In old age, integration of our past failures and successes is our main psychological task. Reminiscence—the process or practice of thinking or telling about past experiences—had been considered an unhealthy preoccupation until gerontologist Robert Butler linked it with Erikson’s ideas about integration and recommended that reminiscence be encouraged. Butler’s theory—published in 1975—paved the way for a blossoming of reminiscence models in gerontology. But until the late 1990s, creativity and the arts were missing from the big picture even though, in the mid- to late 1970s, artists were already working with older adults.

Arts and Aging Policy: A Chronology

The first White House Conference on Aging sets the stage for Medicare, Medicaid, and the Older Americans Act of 1965. Conferences are convened every decade: 1971, 1981, 1995, and 2005.

The National Endowment for the Arts brings together experts to articulate the importance of arts and humanities for older adults. The group delivers a resolution to the White House Conference on Aging.

The National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, and National Council on Aging sponsor a second conference on the arts, humanities, and older Americans. Jane Alexander is the first Arts Endowment chairman invited to keynote a White House Conference on Aging.

The new National Center for Creative Aging (NCCA) receives funding from the Arts Endowment to create a database of programs for older adults and to network, train, and advocate for the field of creative aging.

The Arts Endowment in partnership with NCCA, AARP, and NAMM: The International Music Products Association sponsors a conference on creative aging. Participants prepare a resolution for the White House Conference on Aging that delegates consider but do not formalize.

The National Conference on Arts and Aging: Creativity Matters—the first conference of its kind—is presented by NCCA and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. The 235 community-based artists and representatives of healthcare, aging, education, and cultural organizations; foundations; corporations; and government agencies explore the intersections among research, policy, and practice.


By 2005, there was clear evidence that participation in the arts enriches the lives of older adults in multiple ways, though awareness of the potential was limited. At the third conference on creativity and aging, sponsored that year by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with NCCA, AARP, and NAMM: The International Music Products Association, arts leaders sought to move the arts onto the agenda of the 2005 White House Conference on Aging. Participants submitted resolutions for review by the conference’s policy committee, which forwarded one to delegates for consideration. Ultimately, the delegates did not include an arts resolution among the 50 that were approved for further action, but the issue made progress; it was ranked 58th.

The resolution states:

Research suggests that active participation in the arts and learning promotes physical health, enhances a sense of well being among older Americans, improves quality of life for those who are ill, and reduces the risk factors that lead to the need for long-term care. Even though there is an interest and participation in the arts by many older Americans, there is a general lack of awareness in the public, healthcare, and social services communities about the positive physical and psychological impacts of arts participation. However, there is a valuable untapped resource of older artists who could be teachers or mentors in expanded arts programs for seniors. Older Americans may be encouraged to participate in dance, music, and visual arts activities and may choose to expand their horizons through art appreciation programs. Participation in arts activities may lead to intergenerational exchange of values and knowledge. For example, seniors may work together and with younger populations to preserve the value of older adults’ memories and life experiences by recording their experiences and life histories in various mediums.

Resolution: Increase awareness of the positive physical and psychological impact that arts participation can have on older Americans.

To explore the potential for advancing the arts and aging field, this chapter examines:


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