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Creativity for the ages: why it matters, and what you can do about it.

16 Aug 2018
Think you're getting any younger? Dancer and educator Susan Jordan brings us up to date with the importance of creativity in a life well lived.

New Zealand is changing. In 20 years there will be 1.3 million people aged 65 or older with a larger number living past 80. Our ageing population will alter the structure of our society, how we relate in our communities, our work, health, housing and recreation needs will all be challenged. Society will need to change in order to support everyone’s well being, including that of seniors.

We all need to ... challenge the negative, deficit models of ageing. But how do we do this?

We all need to face up to the challenges ahead and be prepared to change as everyone has the birth-right to experience physical, mental and social well being. It’s the work of everyone to support older people as individuals to live well; to help them to deal with the changes brought about by age, and to challenge the negative, deficit models of ageing. But how do we do this?

One vital way is through the arts.

Susan Jordan. Photo supplied.

Creative Ageing

We in the arts world have much to offer to all and especially to the ageing. The utilisation of the arts to excite imagination and support older people to age well is known as “creative ageing” – a phrase coined by prominent US psychiatrist and gerontologist Dr Gene Cohen in the 1990s.

Creative Ageing is the active participation in any kind of art form. It can also includes performing, publishing or exhibiting finished work. Even creating objects in community sheds and coffin clubs can be considered creative. It is the active participation and not just the passive viewing of other people’s art, that counts.

Dance in particular (which is my particular field of expertise) has been researched in depth and found to be beneficial in the many ways mentioned above. In addition dance provides physical benefits such as muscle strength, joint mobility and improved balance, all of which lead to fall mitigation.

No one seems to know what is available ... nor is [creative ageing] in any government policy, local or central.

The cardiovascular system is also improved as with all physical activity. Neurons in the brain are challenged and strengthened as movement sequences are remembered. I’ve been teaching SeniorsDANCE now for six years and the classes and demand is growing. I have another teacher, Sue MacRae, delivering classes and have put a call out for others to join us.

The field of Creative Aging is currently exploding especially in the United Kingdom, Europe and North America where I have just returned from a Creative NZ funded exploration to see first-hand what has developed. There are many dance programmes both for the active healthy senior but also for those who suffer age-related disabilities such as dementia. But it’s not just dance, it’s also music – learning a new instrument, singing in a choir; theatre, story-telling, visual and craft arts. There are community performing groups, semi-professional and professional artists performing even longer into old age.

Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England and parts of America and Canada all have creative ageing festivals celebrating the outpouring of creativity developed and presented by older adults, as well as established centres and studios where art activities are promoted and delivered to older people. In addition the health sector has taken up the idea of Creative Ageing and is paying artists to come in and deliver programmes to patients.

The aim of arts programmes is to extend the healthy life expectancy and quality of life for all people as they age. Maintaining autonomy and independence for the older people is a key goal.  In addition there is an intense interest by the health sector to incorporate the arts into prevention, wellness and rehabilitation programs across the spectrum. One of the key goals for the health sector to incorporate the arts is to delay the onset of age-related disabilities.

It’s time to change this and an exciting opportunity is right before us.

While the concept of Creative Ageing is not generally known in this country there does appear to be some creative activities available for seniors in various cities and regions.  There are many choirs, some dance classes, at least one theatre group, ukulele classes and at least one visual arts class for stroke recovery. No one seems to know what is available and I believe this is because art activities are not promoted collectively under the heading of Creative Ageing, nor is it in any government policy, local or central.  It’s time to change this and an exciting opportunity is right before us.

Seniors Dance in rehearsal. Photo supplied.

A New Strategy for Positive Ageing

The Minister for Seniors, Hon Tracey Martin, is calling for suggestions to be included in the new Positive Ageing Strategy. This is an appropriate and pertinent opportunity to include the concept of Creative Ageing. New Zealand artists have much to offer and it would develop a new area for employment and industry in the creative sector.  In turn Seniors would continue to contribute much to a more cohesive and age-friendly society.

There’s something quite specific you can do about this, today. You can make a submission by post or email to the Ministry of Social Development’s review, before it’s deadline of August 24. There is a lot of background information on their website. And you can also talk to them on Facebook. Or - if you can't be bothered reading the backgrounders - just bang out an email to [email protected].

Submissions don't have to be lengthy or complex. Brevity and clarity are the main requirements. Numbered recommendations is a good option.

I suggest you tell them what art activities you or your organisation is involved in and how it helps people to age well, and what your organisation needs to improve or expand. Inform them about any research you know of. Numbers count – the more of us who submit ideas around Creative Ageing the more likely it is to be included in any new strategy.  Funding follows strategy so let’s start a new movement today.

By taking action now it will be strengthening all sectors of Aotearoa, help us all to age well and develop a new sector for artist employment.

Susan Jordan is a dancer, teacher and choreographer. She has an upcoming work Glass Ceilings to celebrate 125 years of women's suffrage. You can get involved directly through her school, Senoirs Dance.