Aging Creatively

Pablo Picasso once said “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” Anecdotal, yes, but researchers are becoming more aware of the physical and mental benefits of art therapy for older people. Though attitudes towards the arts for older people is changing, funding art therapy for them is still a difficult task.

“We’re at the very beginning,” says Susan Perlstein, founder of Elders Share the Arts and founder emeritus for the National Center for Creative Aging. “I would say that the groups that are around now are all struggling. No one is really what I would say a huge arts organization that serves older people, and I probably know all the organizations. And whether they’re inside an institution, or whether they’re a stand-alone arts organization, like Elders Share the Arts… there is no sustainable funding at this point.”

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Arts are adding value to the lives of older people that cannot be measured in dollars. But the savings to the medicare system from art therapy can.

If properly implemented, art therapies for older people have the potential to save millions in Medicaid and Medicare dollars, and more importantly, they could save dignity for older people.

One strong advocate for such programs is Christopher Nadeau, executive director of the New York Memory Center (NYMC). He thinks that the savings for the health care system will come from a reduction in the necessity of care and medication.

“Nursing homes run so much more expensive than a social model day center does,” says Nadeau.

Recent research would agree with him. In 2009 Dr. Gene Cohen, of The Center for Aging, Health and Humanities at George Washington University, included a cost-benefit analysis as part of a study. The results of his study, titled New Theories and Research Findings on the Positive Influence of Music and Art on Health With Ageing, suggests that savings to Medicare on prescription drugs alone could be about $13 billion per year.

More research is being done now than ever before in regards to arts programs for older people, and the starting point was another study performed by Dr. Cohen in 2006.

“That is now the point of reference research that allowed this literal sea-change to take place,” says Perlstein. “In other words it was a shift in how policymakers then put funding into place.”

The study found that cultural programs such as poetry, dance, music, drama or painting, reduced the number of skilled care visits and prescription medications for participants. In 2011 caring for older peoplein skilled nursing facilities cost the United States $63.5 billion. A single month at a nursing home in the state of New York can cost upward of $10,000 according to statistics provided by the New York State Partnership for Long-Term Care.

Now that the research is expanding and becoming readily available, the challenge is in coalescing two paradigms that have sometimes stood at odds in the past.

Perlstein says that the real problem in bringing funds to art therapy programs is an issue of language. On one side there is the biomedical language, concerned primarily with cures and statistics. The grant writers who speak this language, such as researchers at hospitals and larger medical institutions, take the lion’s share of funding. This is evident in the fact that in the 2011 National Alzheimer’s Project Act: of the $130 million set aside through 2013 for dementia research, none was given to art therapies.

The other side of the issue, the other language, is the mind-body approach to treatment, which focuses more on life-long learning. The institutions who work more in this language tend to get money from institutions such as the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The problem with getting funding from the mind-body side is that institutions such as the NEA tend to focus almost exclusively on younger people.

“Arts funding across the board has been cut for people of all ages, and I think in this country it is still just focused on K through 12,” says Katie Fitzgerald, communications director for the National Center for Creative Aging. “And just in the last four or five years people are starting to recognize that there’s an aging demographic and that there are people that want to volunteer in our institutions and want to have creative outlets and there’s no opportunity for that.”

To successfully obtain funding, an arts program director must speak both languages. Nadeau does not see these two sides as mutually exclusive.

“This concept of the creative arts as being something that’s outside the realm of medicine couldn’t be farther from the truth,” says Nadeau. “And it can save our health care system trillions of dollars in an environment where we just don’t know weather we can afford the aging population without bankrupting this country.”

To put it in perspective, an average of 10,000 baby boomers will retire every day for the next 19 years according to the Pew Research Center. This means that an additional 70 million Americans will be retired by 2031. With this many people on the way to retirement, it could be a mistake to ignore any possible cost reducers

The next generation of art therapists is bringing a new perspective to the field. Emery Mikel is fairly new to art therapy, graduating in 2007, but has already been successful in setting up her own art therapy practice as well as working as a consultant to various art therapy programs. She recently published a book on developing your own practice as an art therapist.

“I think the skills of all the creative arts therapies are starting to have that dual language there,” says Mikel. “I think up until a little while ago some people were more medically based or psychologically based and could speak that language. And then others were more creatively based and didn’t know how to cross over. But I feel like the programs now are teaching how to straddle those two positions.”

Fiscal savings aside, the greatest value in music therapy lies in its ability to improve the quality of life of it’s participants, a value not financially quantifiable. Many older patients under art therapy report an improvement in morale, as well as a reduction in loneliness and depression, problems endemic among older people.

“If there’s anything that we’re saying about music, and about the creative arts is that it facilitates and supports an individual’s desire to celebrate life… and that there is a life worth living,” says Nadeau.

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