One big room was full of people banging on inverted buckets on chairs, simulating the experience of playing the taiko drum, a large traditional Japanese instrument that engages the player’s whole body in movement and rhythm.
In another room, a circle of people danced animatedly — arms linked, heads bobbing, legs kicking — to familiar tunes like “The Sunny Side of the Street.”
And in classrooms all throughout the sprawling buildings of the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chaska, professional artists discussed teaching older people art techniques including tissue-paper collage, quilt making, storytelling, children’s books and playing the dulcimer.
The occasion was the 2015 Midwest Arts and Aging Conference and Showcase, an event held in June by ArtSage (www.artsagemn.org), a Stillwater-based nonprofit that works to involve older people in the arts — not as audience members, but as creators. ArtSage trains artists to teach older people and helps match them with organizations that serve them.
The idea is that creating art benefits the aging in numerous physical and emotional ways, offering an opportunity to stay active, engaged and social.
Of the approximately 200 attendees at the ArtSage event, the majority were program or activity directors in seniors residences, said Tammy Hauser, who became executive director at ArtSage in 2012 (though recently left for another position). ArtSage works to encourage those professionals to recognize the value of engaging in art.
“We already have Bingo. We already have Joe the accordion player who comes in once a month,” Hauser said. “We’re trying to get them to see older adults as creative beings, and not just passive participants. What we believe and know from science and anecdotal evidence is when people make art, when they’re creating their own music, when they’re writing their own stories, when they’re singing their own songs, it’s far more beneficial for them.”
That idea is supported by research conducted in the early 2000s. The late psychiatrist Gene Cohen divided 300 people averaging age 80 into two groups: Half attended participatory art programs and half didn’t. Even two years later, the group that engaged in art reported better health, fewer doctor visits, less medication usage, more positive responses on mental health measures and more activity overall.
Cohen, who headed centers on aging at the National Institute of Mental Health and at George Washington University, argued that elderly people can not only function at high levels of creativity, but that creative activities could spur their brains to continue developing.
Those ideas motivate ArtSage and many of the programs it works with, which include the dance company KAIROS Alive!, McPhail Music for Life and the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project (see sidebar).
Although art is good for folks of any age, ArtSage has focused primarily on programs for elderly people because they’re most in need, Hauser said. “They’re frail, they don’t have a car, they can’t leave the place.”
Iris Shiraishi, who teaches older people to play the taiko drum, said it’s amazing to see how playing the huge drums can transform people with memory problems.
“When they’re able to get this big sound, their face lights up, their eyes light up,” she said. “Teaching older adults has been more rewarding than I could ever have imagined. There’s always at least one goose-bump moment.”
Maria Genné, a dancer and choreographer who founded KAIROS Alive!, said she sees dance as a sort of “cure” for Alzheimer’s.
“It doesn’t make everything all better, but it creates well-being for people,” she said. “People come alive when they’re invited to dance. I’m seeing over and over again the power of this artistic engagement that allows people to flourish where they are.”
Lucy Rose Fischer (see page 6) teaches the art of creating collages out of wads of brightly colored tissue paper — a technique, she noted, in which “wrinkles are good”. She said people benefit from the opportunity to express themselves in unique ways, to incorporate their life experiences, to exhibit their creations.
“It almost brings tears to my eyes when their friends and relatives come and they’re showing them their art,” Fischer said.
Even caregivers and staff members in senior residences “start seeing people in a way they didn’t see them before,” she said. “They’re not just people who are old and who have disabilities. They’re people who do art.”