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Creativity Matters: The Arts and Aging Toolkit
photo of five people dancing with a saxophonist (Kairos)

2.1: Enhancing Community Quality of Life

The arts help all residents of a community

The arts can have a powerful role in elder-friendly communities, which have the following characteristics:18

Elder-Friendly Community

As this list suggests, the social structures that help define community are no less important than the physical structures. The concept of aging in place involves more than the ability to remain in one’s home; it includes the ability to continue functioning and thriving in one’s community. Marc Freedman, founder of the think-tank organization Civic Ventures, refers to “aging in community.” This concept “encourages a proactive strategy to create supportive neighborhoods and networks. Thus, the well-being and quality of life for elders at home becomes a measure of the success of the community. Aging in community advances the concept of being ‘a darn good neighbor’—and, as a result, promotes social capital, a sense of trust and mutual interconnectedness that is enhanced over time through positive interactions and collaboration in shared interests.”19

Design for Elder-Friendly Communities

Universal design—also called inclusive design, design-for-all, and lifespan design—is an orientation to any design process that starts with a responsibility to the experience of the user. Universal design is not a design style, but a framework for the design of places, things, information, communication, and policy to be usable by the widest range of people operating in the widest range of situations without special or separate design. Quite simply, it is human-centered design of everything with everyone in mind. Illustrations include Oxo kitchen implements, walk-don’t-walk signals that chirp or talk when it is safe to cross the street, signs that have large type and high contrast against the background, and at-grade building entrances without doorsills.

Universal design is a nondiscriminatory response to barriers faced by older adults who wish to age in place in an elder-friendly community. It empowers people by allowing them to remain independent longer, and it advances human dignity by enhancing independence. It makes the physical structures usable to all, the community accessible to all. For more details, visit the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University.

Arts and Aging in Community Cultural Development

Arts and aging programs often find a good fit with community needs in the context of community cultural development, which involves “a range of initiatives undertaken by artists in collaboration with other community members to express identity, concerns, and aspirations through the arts and communications media, while building cultural capacity and contributing to social change.”20

The concept of community cultural development has seven guiding principles:

  1. Active participation in cultural life is an essential goal of community cultural
  2. All cultures are essentially equal, and society should not promote any one as superior to
    the other.
  3. Diversity is a social asset, part of the cultural commonwealth, requiring protection and
  4. Culture is an effective crucible for social transformation, one that can be less polarizing
    and create deeper connections than other social-change arenas.
  5. Cultural expression is a means of emancipation, not the primary end in itself; the
    process is as important as the product.
  6. Culture is a dynamic, protean whole, and there is no value in creating artificial
    boundaries within it.
  7. Artists have roles as agents of transformation that are more socially valuable than
    mainstream art-world roles—and certainly equal in legitimacy.21

Community Arts

Arts and aging programs mesh well with community cultural development because they are community arts programs, which are based on the premise that cultural meaning, expression, and creativity reside within the community. The artist’s task is to collaborate with community members so that they can free their imaginations and give form to their creativity. Liz Lerman uses dance as an example:

For me, an excellent dance performance includes the following: the dancers are 100 percent committed to the movement they are doing; they understand why they are doing what they are doing. And something is being revealed in that moment: something about the dancer or about the subject, about the relationship of the dancers or about the world in which we live. Something is revealed.22

This fluid definition doesn’t imply that community arts are unprofessional or amateurish; they should be of high quality, led by professional teaching artists. Understanding how context relates to quality and excellence is particularly important when program participants have dementia. In this case, any validated self-expression and successful communication with others is excellent; however, the more the art created by people with dementia resembles art, the more professional caregivers identify it – and the person – as valuable.

A hallmark of community arts is the importance of the process of making art. Don Adams and Arlene Goldbard describe the relationship between process and product:

Although projects may yield products of great skill and power (such as murals, videos, plays, and dances), the process of awakening to cultural meanings and mastering cultural tools to express and communicate them is always primary. To be most effective, projects must be open-ended, leaving the content and focus to be determined by participants.23

Chapter 6 looks at the equally transforming effects that the process and the art created have on older adults’ quality of life.

Culture Change

Culture change facilitated by the arts has a great many commonalities with community cultural development. Some facility-based communities (such as assisted living or skilled care) are creating a resident- or person-centered paradigm in which the environment is one of community rather than medicine. Adopting this asset-based model over a deficit-based approach “requires that long-term care providers respond to the values, preferences, and care needs of recipients while incorporating them into the fabric of their local communities. Patient participation, client autonomy, and shared decision making are emphasized.”24 Older adults’ potential is ignited when staff members encourage them to give voice to their memories and wishes. Their quality of life is improved when they are heard, have options, and can make choices. And professional caregivers have greater job satisfaction when they know those in their care.

For an older adult with dementia, whether living in a residential facility or at home, art may be the only medium through which they can communicate their values, preferences, and care needs. Anne Basting and John Killick elaborate:

Because arts activities do not have a “right” or a “wrong” answer, they can help solidify bonds between caregivers and people with dementia by giving them a space in which they can play together. In an arts session, caregivers don’t need to correct the people for whom they care, and people with dementia don’t need to anticipate being corrected. Together they can experience the joy of creating something new and of communicating on an emotional level….

Because the arts open avenues to self-expression, arts activities can help staff to see the self still present and growing in people with dementia. Understanding that you are caring for a person, rather than an object, can make caregiving a much more rewarding and meaningful experience.25

Community Cultural Development Examples


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