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Creativity Matters: The Arts and Aging Toolkit
photo of two men dancing (Kairos)

About the Toolkit


Creativity. According to the Random House Unabridged Dictionary it is “the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.” A more concise definition is “bringing something new of value into existence.” The etymology of “creativity,” however, is what resonates for those of us who are passionate about embedding the arts—or creativity—in the lives of older adults and the communities in which they live. The word comes from the Latin creatus, which means “to have grown.” Older adults have grown in knowledge and experience, and we should value them for what they contribute to each of us individually and to our communities.

The arts are the key. They enable us to communicate effectively within and between generations, making sense of and reconciling life experiences, understanding and celebrating the present, and creating a legacy for the future. They also allow us to experiment without fear of failing—to be challenged—and to succeed in learning new skills and discovering latent ones. Strengthening connections among older adults, family, friends, residents, and caregivers, the arts create a sense of community in which each person’s contribution is respected. In sum, the arts enhance quality of life.

No matter what their age or their physical or mental ability, older adults can and should participate in the arts. And not just any arts, but high-quality, participatory arts programs conducted over a significant period by professional teaching artists.

The National Guild for Community Arts Education, the National Center for Creative Aging, and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center believe that the arts are of vital importance to the lives of current and future generations of older adults. Many leaders in the arts, healthcare, and aging services industries share this belief, but too few have created or sustained effective arts and aging programs. Now is the time to be part of the process, part of the solution: the “beyond bingo” generation is here.

This resource is designed for leaders and program staff in public, nonprofit, and for-profit arts and humanities organizations and institutions and in healthcare and aging services organizations, corporations, and institutions. It is intended to increase the expertise of those who direct existing community arts and aging programs and to give others in the community the tools to take the first step—and keep going.

This information will also benefit:

The Arts and Aging Toolkit will help you:

Enhancing quality of life by embedding the arts in the lives of older adults and the communities in which they live is more than a goal. It is one facet of a broader movement in the arts and aging services fields: a push toward designing or redesigning community so that the infrastructure works harmoniously to support everyone’s needs as defined by all community members.

How to Use This Toolkit

If you are reading this resource, chances are you want to develop a new arts and aging program or enhance an existing one. You may be an experienced program designer or someone just starting out. You probably identify with or work in the arts or aging services fields. You may be hoping for answers—knowledge, rationales, tips, models, and resources—and this toolkit is intended to provide them. Your commitment and passion for older adults and the arts will help you face the challenge and make the difference between success and failure.

Chapters 1 through 5 provide the background to help you design and implement an arts and aging program. These chapters explain the context for arts and aging today; the benefits of arts participation for older adults ; issues, infrastructure, and opportunities in the aging services and arts fields; and effective practices for arts and aging programs.

Chapters 6 through 9 offer practical, how-to guidance for program design and implementation; program evaluation; and public awareness. These chapters illustrate important concepts with concrete examples from successful programs. You can learn something from all of them, whether they are focused on well or frail elders, people who live in the community or in a residential facility, or older adults with dementia.

We have designed this toolkit for a variety of experience and interest levels. Many readers will find something of interest in every chapter, and others will browse the sections that are most relevant to them. Here is a roadmap to make the toolkit work for you:

If you are… Read…
Just starting out or interested in this subject The entire toolkit
An older adult who wants to learn how to age productively Chapters 1, 2, and 5, which explain normal aging and the benefits, challenges, and outcome goals of effective arts and aging programs
Experienced in the arts and aging field Chapter 2 to refresh your existing arguments about benefits and chapter 8 to understand the value of outcome evaluation
Working in the aging services or arts fields and want to convince others of the value of arts and aging programs Chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5
A teaching artist Chapter 1 to understand normal aging and chapters 6 and 7 to understand program design and implementation
A private- or public-sector funder Chapters 1, 2, and 5 for background on arts and aging programs and an explanation of effective practices
A family member of an older adult Chapter 1 to understand normal aging and chapter 2 to learn about rationales that can convince senior centers, adult day programs, and long-term care facilities to offer professionally conducted participatory arts programs

Creativity Opens Doors

If you’re looking for a reason to start an arts program for older adults, the older adults quoted throughout this toolkit offer eloquent testimony. By her own description, Suzanne could not string three sentences together before she moved into an EngAGE: The Art of Active Aging community. After she began participating in writing and visual arts programs, she wrote a screenplay for a 10-minute film. Her story of reinvention, including the making of the film, was featured in the Showtime series This American Life. She is now working on several other film and stage projects.

Suzanne’s enthusiasm speaks volumes about why creativity matters to older adults:

I couldn’t believe that there would be a community for me at this time in my life. I didn’t think I would be able to find something new inside of me. You know that same feeling when you got out of school and the whole world was open to you? Now, all over again, the whole world is open to me.

Basic Terms

Before you begin, it is helpful to learn these definitions:

Aging services field
Organizations, corporations, institutions, and individuals such as the Administration on Aging, state units on aging, local-level area agencies on aging, senior centers, continuing-care retirement communities, corporations or foundations that own these communities, healthcare-focused community organizations (such as the Alzheimer’s Association and the Visiting Nurse Association), family and professional caregivers, adult day programs, and hospitals.

Arts field
Public, nonprofit, and for-profit arts organizations and institutions, such as the National Endowment for the Arts, state and local arts agencies, regional arts organizations, community schools of the arts, individual artists, arts education organizations, organizations focused on the literary arts, community-based organizations, musical instrument manufacturers, artist materials manufacturers, performing arts centers, presenting organizations, museums, symphonies, and dance, opera, and theater companies.

Arts and aging field
Organizations and individuals in the arts and aging services fields who are focused full-time or part-time on providing sustained, high-quality, professionally led, participatory, community arts programs to older adults.

A physical and social construct that includes cities, neighborhoods, apartment buildings, condominiums, residential facilities (for example, independent living, assisted living, skilled care/long-term care), and a group of people who interact and share certain things such as values or proximity.

Lifelong learning
A process of accomplishing personal, social, and professional development throughout the lifespan of individuals in order to enhance the quality of life of individuals and their communities. Lifelong learning also refers to educational classes, usually affiliated with a college, community college, or university, designed by or for older adults, and often taught by older adults.

The glossary contains additional definitions.