Despite the positive climate for arts programs that enrich the lives of older adults, some lingering challenges affect the arts and aging field and present psychological or physical barriers to effective programs:
When planning, designing, and implementing programs, success will depend on our ability to understand, accommodate, and overcome these challenges.
A fear of growing old pervades our society. Advertising proclaims the wonders of plastic surgery, herbal extracts, anti-aging lotions, and drugs to enhance or suppress bodily functions. Middle-aged actors have difficulty finding meaningful roles. Older adults don’t want to see themselves portrayed as “old”—living in nursing homes or sitting on park benches.
Erik Erikson and his coauthors describe this long-term preoccupation in Vital Involvement in Old Age :
Young is beautiful. Old is ugly. This attitude stems from a stereotyping deeply ingrained in our culture and in our economy. After all, we throw old things away—they are too difficult to mend. New ones are more desirable and up-to-date, incorporating the latest know-how. Old things are obsolete, valueless, and disposable.13
Ageism, the authors conclude, has a devastating impact on older adults:
The cruelest aspect of this cultural attitude is the elders’ vulnerability to the stereotype. Some feel themselves to be unattractive, dull and, quite often, unlovable, and this depressing outlook only aggravates the problem. One response is to avoid looking or acting your own age at all costs. The result is, of course, humiliating failure. Another attitude is to let go, renouncing even rewarding interests and pleasures as unseemly. The acceptance of the stereotype then actualizes the stereotype itself.14
A fear of aging contributes to a variety of negative perceptions:
Ageism can affect the arts and aging field:
A before-and-after survey of kids’ attitudes toward older adults showed how Pearls of Wisdom (ESTA) changed perceptions. Pearls of Wisdom member Amatullah Saleem explains that before interaction with the program, words and phrases used to describe older adults included “walk slowly,” “grouchy,” “mean,” “they have money,” and they “put their teeth in a glass.” After the students spent time with Pearls of Wisdom, their descriptions included “good people,” “not grouchy,” “good storytellers,” and “they are pretty for old ladies.” In fact, older adults, through effective intergenerational programs, become role models to younger participants.
Isolation results from living in a community that isn’t designed to support aging in place. A 2006 study of 1,790 communities in nine regions of the United States revealed critical shortcomings in healthcare, nutrition, exercise, transportation, public safety and emergency services, housing, taxation and finance, workforce development, civic engagement or volunteer opportunities, and aging and human services.16 Older adults who experience normal aging may eventually have difficulty leaving their homes. They may no longer drive, which limits their ability to interact with others.
This situation sets off a chain of negative effects: “Loss of mobility, especially when combined with spatial barriers to an active social life, can provoke a downward spiral. Social isolation increases the danger of depression, disease, and decline, particularly for surviving members of marriages and long-term relationships.” 17
Ironically, over-55 and continuing-care retirement communities may contribute to the problem because residents are segregated from intergenerational civic life and even from their families. The community within long-term care facilities may not be elder-friendly either, if the care philosophy is not person-centered—attuned to individual preferences, perspectives, and abilities. For people with dementia, the isolation is exponentially greater.
Leaders of organizations and programs in the arts, aging services, and arts and aging fields all struggle with communicating the value of their work to funders, policy makers, and the public. This challenge affects recruiting and retaining staff and board members, securing resources, marketing to participants, and attracting media attention.
One explanation for why many people don’t understand the value of arts and aging work is that the field lacks compelling, outcome-based arguments to make the case—or is not making the case effectively. Another reason is that too few family members, caregivers, funders, policy makers, and community leaders understand the definition of community arts —which draws on the cultural meaning, expression, and creativity that reside within the community—and the importance of context to quality and excellence. They may attend an intergenerational living history performance at a school or an exhibit at a senior center and think that what they are seeing is not “good art.” They may not appreciate the process and, consequently, may question the value of the overall program.
The arts and aging field must deal with the challenge of change both externally and internally. The communities in which we work are often in transition thanks to factors such as the diversity of residents and the actions of government and private interests. Demographics, new funding opportunities, resource shortfalls, community demands, and public policy shifts are among the external factors that affect our organizations. Internally, the departure of key staff members is typically a time to reconsider how you do business.
Whether change is positive or negative depends, in part, on individual and organizational response. All organizations—not just arts and aging services—need to prepare themselves to be appropriate and relevant service providers to older audiences and participants. Residents can also join to effect change through political action or volunteerism. Organizations can create arts programs designed to facilitate communication among and knowledge of disparate groups.
For individuals throughout the lifespan, moving from the familiar to the unknown may be daunting. In general, trying something new is both exciting and intimidating. Because older adults are perceived through ageism as being resistant to change, they are not given the opportunity to try new activities, have new experiences, and learn new information. While some may be afraid of aging, they are also liberated from fear of failing or the opinions of others.