The intent of arts and aging programs is to accomplish one or more of these goals—all aimed at enhancing quality of life:
Research shows that these outcome goals are interrelated,
Mastery and social engagement are particularly important for older adults, and they are two areas in which the arts have significant impact.
Mastery is skill or knowledge of a technique or topic. Older adults experience mastery when they overcome challenges successfully. Mastery relates to what is taught—program activities—and how it is taught—instructional design. The activities focus on teaching new skills, imparting new knowledge, and/or developing latent skills or interests. In the New Horizons Music program, for example, many participants had played instruments in their youth but stopped; others were learning instruments for the first time. The instructional design relates to the effective practice of participatory, sequential learning; each lesson or technique is challenging, yet achievable, and increases in difficulty. Success at each step is vital.
Almost all arts and aging programs involve reminiscence, which helps older adults make sense of and reconcile life experiences. Organizing the past, much like pasting photos in an album, contributes to older adults’ sense of control.
Social engagement refers to active involvement in the community and with other people, not for the sake of being involved, but to accomplish something that is valued by the community and meaningful to the older adults. We all want to contribute to social capital—the collective value of social networks and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other. And we want to be remembered for making a positive difference, sometimes called legacy leaving. At a time of life when “old” connections may have disappeared, it is important for older adults to make new connections to other people; to the past, present, and future; and to their emotional lives.
In addition to community involvement, older adults benefit from a strong social support network of friends and family. John W. Rowe and Robert L. Kahn, the authors of Successful Aging, have a good metaphor:
We like the term “convoy of social support” to describe the pattern of supportive relationships with which an individual moves through life. A convoy is a dynamic entity; the ships that make it up are in motion, en route to a destination. Being part of the convoy protects them, but each also provides a degree of protection to the others. The metaphor of the convoy seems to fit the personal networks of stability and change on which we depend for support as we move through the life course.48
Related to social engagement is communication, not just the ability to articulate ideas and feelings, but to be understood. Communication is particularly important in programs for older adults with dementia who may have lost the ability to speak. Memories in the Making, a program of the Alzheimer’s Association, is a way to record expressions or feelings through art for people with dementia and limited verbal skills. The Orange County, California, chapter pioneered this program:
Alzheimer’s dementia brings with it a constant reminder of failures and losses. The Memories® art program is not about failure. Every picture is important and valid. Its value lies in the creative process of making the art and expressing feelings and emotions trapped inside. The ensuing sense of accomplishment brings renewed joy and self-respect to the patient.49
John is young, only 68, but has severe Alzheimer’s disease. The title, “FA8,” was not significant to the facilitator, until she showed the art to John’s wife. John with his few words tried to explain, “It’s going around those mountains down below.” He circled with his finger tracing the swirling lines. When asked about the circle standing alone to the side, he said, “That one’s calm because he is with God.” John’s wife, seeing the painting explained, “FA8 was our son’s Navy jet and he was flying in formation with three other jets, two landed and two collided. Our son, Greg, 24, was one that died.”
Source: LaDoris “Sam” Heinly, I’m Still Here (Newport Beach, CA: 2005)