Older adults receive the greatest benefits from an arts and aging program that exhibits these effective practices:
Shows intentionality. The program is designed to accomplish one or more specific goals to enhance older adults’ quality of life. The benefit to participants is not a byproduct or an afterthought. For example, the goal of the Foundation for Quality Care’s Art from the Heart program is: “To qualitatively improve care and quality of life by offering nursing home residents the opportunity for creative expression and enhanced living.”
Meets needs. The program meets the self-identified needs of the participating older adults. Nothing is imposed upon the group because this approach undermines the value of self-determination. Conducting a needs assessment—asking participants what they want—is a tenet of effective planning.
Demonstrates participatory, sequential learning. The learning or instructional design takes into consideration the older adults’ physical and mental abilities. For those who are cognitively fit, principles of adult learning are applied. For those with dementia, teaching artists focus on needs. Instruction is sequential, with each activity building on the one before it—much like learning the alphabet, then words, then sentences. Each step is challenging yet achievable. Finally, content must emphasize participation.
Includes professional teaching artists. The program features a professional teaching artist, defined by Teaching Artist Journal. an artist, with the complementary skills and sensibilities of an educator, who engages people in learning experiences in, through, or about the arts.”47 In arts and aging programs, the teaching artist is also grounded in community arts.
Evaluates impact. Leaders of effective arts and aging programs are able to answer the question: How do you know that what you are doing is making a difference to participants? Are you accomplishing your goals? The Foundation for Quality Care, for example, would assess whether nursing home residents participating in the Art from the Heart program are receiving improved care and quality of life. Ideally, the answer would include both qualitative data (anecdotes) and quantitative data (statistics).
Demonstrates excellence and high quality. The program has a high-quality process, which means that it demonstrates participatory, sequential learning. What is created during the process is also of high quality in context and honored as such regardless of context.
Engenders learning communities. Participants are nurtured and supported by their own learning community—a group of people who share common values and beliefs. Those who manage the program—teaching artists along with administrative and program staff of the arts and aging services organizations—have a learning community as well so they can problem-solve and increase programmatic effectiveness.
Plans for sustainability. The program leader plans for finding, sustaining, and increasing resources over the long term. A three-year record of accomplishment of growth is a good sign. Program partners aim for a permanent program that is an integral part of the community or institution. During the first three years, they engage participants, expand programming and activities, and involve stakeholders who are committed to the program’s future. Ongoing evaluation is critical to sustainability.
Has circular program components. The key program components—design, implementation, and evaluation—are circular , not linear. A successful and beneficial arts and aging program does not simply begin with design and end with evaluation. It constantly looks forward and backward so that decisions and actions are thoughtful and informed by reality.