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Creativity Matters: The Arts and Aging Toolkit
photo of two women holding watercolors (AFTA)
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4.1: Understanding Key Issues

Expanded Definition of Arts Education

People of all ages—not just young people—make up the audience for arts education. Research shows that people want and need to learn, grow, and contribute to communities throughout their lives. With its focus on older adults’ quality of life, the arts and aging field has the expertise, research, and evidence of impact to push for lifelong learning. One segment of the arts community that has long understood this concept is the folk arts field. The emphasis on passing traditions and skills from one generation to another, honoring elders, and preserving history provides a model for other arts disciplines that are just starting to think more broadly about arts education.

Arts Participation

The more ways people participate in the arts—and the more often—the more likely they are to engage in other activities that support community life. Increased participation, in turn, strengthens the case for providing political and economic support for arts and cultural institutions as valuable community assets. The Wallace Foundation, with its partners the RAND Corporation and the Urban Institute, has led efforts to understand why and how people participate in the arts. The foundation’s intent is to give arts organizations insights and tools to increase participation.

A Broader Definition of the Arts

Arts leaders are exploring the implications of a definition of the arts that has broadened to include activities under the aegis of a variety of organizations, corporations, and community-based groups—activities such as singing in church, doing needlepoint, decorating pottery, viewing a Hollywood blockbuster, and attending a musical revue at Walt Disney World. Arts education is no longer only the purview of nonprofit organizations and schools. Yamaha, for example, not only manufactures musical instruments; it also develops music curricula aimed for the most part at older adults.

Community Engagement

Integrating the arts into community life benefits not only older adults, but all residents by facilitating lifelong learning, contributing to the economy, and building community. From the perspective of the arts field, community engagement means the continued growth of the artistic discipline, the opportunity to explore the value and relevance of the arts, and a forum to address community issues. Community schools of the arts, for example, are interested in expanding community beyond young people to older adults and others who have available time during the day.

Demonstrated Impact

Outcome evaluation measures the impact of programs on participants—what they learned and how they changed. Instead of asking, for example, “How many people took a singing class?” the question is, “How many people learned to sing?” This approach has gained currency in the public and nonprofit sectors since the early 1990s, and arts and aging programs must use it to apply successfully for public and private funds, market programs to older adults, and raise public awareness of the value of their work. Outcome evaluation has much in common with evidence-based research, a familiar concept in the aging services and medical fields.

Scarce Resources

Even though research demonstrates the value of the arts to individuals and communities and more arts organizations are evaluating outcomes, there is a gap between value and resources. Many policymakers—including public and private funders—are reluctant to allocate sufficient resources or implement supportive policies for the arts. A case in point is K-12 arts education. School, district, and state leaders are limiting or cutting arts instruction from the curriculum, in part because of testing requirements in the No Child Left Behind Act, the federal legislation that authorizes education programs and spending. In the arts and aging field, the challenge is greater because advocates have to demonstrate impact on two different audiences: arts and aging services.

Some public funders do not believe it is the role of government to fund the arts; see the arts as a frill instead of a way to help strengthen communities; or don’t have available dollars. Closing the gap between value and resources requires assessing program impact and making a qualitative and quantitative case for resources. It’s also important to encourage program participants to serve as advocates.

Professional Development for Teaching Artists

Teaching artists not only teach and create art. They also administer programs, work in partnership with staff, and assess impact. They are at the heart of successful arts education programs for all ages. Like any professionals, they need continuing education to understand trends, implement new requirements, and improve techniques. Teaching artists might consider forming learning communities in which they can share ideas and solve problems together. Another strategy is to provide specific training on topics such as normal aging. In addition, arts organizations want to be certain that their teaching artists are of high quality. Partially in response to this concern, arts and education leaders in a few states and cities are discussing certification of teaching artists.

Special Issues for Creative Arts Therapies

The creative arts therapies include art, dance and movement, drama, music, poetry, and psychodrama. Therapists are licensed by states to use arts and creativity during intentional interventions in therapeutic, rehabilitative, community, or educational settings to foster health, communication, and expression; promote the integration of physical, emotional, cognitive, and social functioning; enhance self-awareness; and facilitate change.

In working with older adults, these therapists and professional teaching artists are complementary. The following description resonates with the same values found in arts and aging programs:

Successful art therapy with older adults should stem from the belief that aging provides the opportunity to mine life’s riches in the art-making process. As such, the hope is to empower older men and women through creative expression and to encourage them to draw from their wisdom and experience as valued members of society. 45

Though complementary, there is a difference between creative arts therapies with older adults, which are primarily a medical intervention, and arts and aging programs, which are primarily about quality of life.

Relevant issues for creative arts therapies are:

Gaining official recognition

Licensing and credentialing are important for therapists for insurance reimbursement and standing within the medical community. With the exception of poetry and psychodrama, whose practitioners are already licensed because of their academic requirements, therapists typically need state licensing as counselors. (Just two states, New York and Wisconsin, have separate licensing for creative arts therapists.) The American Music Therapy Association, for example, lobbies states to recognize music therapy as a profession and music therapists as providers. The association also supports research to make the case for music therapy as a complementary and alternative medical intervention.

Determining ownership and dissemination of art created in therapeutic settings.

Since the creative arts therapies are a counseling profession with confidentiality requirements, the question of who owns the art created by clients is relevant. A similar concern is whether sharing the art with the community in some way puts the client at risk. A client must give permission since he or she owns the art—a challenge when the client has dementia. Though perhaps not a major issue within the creative arts therapies, the ownership question illustrates the sensitivity that those in the arts and aging field should have toward the community sharing of the art-making process.

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