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Art making can help transcend the challenges of aging. In my work as an art therapist, I have met many older men and women who have shown me that maintaining engagement in old age is possible, and so is achieving re-engagement in the face of loss or change. In the practice of art therapy, understanding the experiences of our patients and clients is of the greatest importance. My purpose in this article is to highlight findings from a study I conducted (Stephenson, 2010) in which I attempted to explore how and why art making is important to older artists, how it influences the aging process, and how art and art making change with age-related physical, emotional, psychological and developmental changes.
Need for the Study
The older adult population of the United States is growing rapidly. Demographers predict that by 2030 the number of people aged 65 and older will represent 20 percent of the population – doubling the number of those age 65 and over from the year 2000 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1999). As the U.S. population ages, it will be increasingly important to promote a quality of life for older adults that both maintains health and is meaningful. As programmes are designed and funded to assist older adults in achieving this goal, and in particular therapeutic programmes utilizing the creative arts, it is important to further understand how creative expression through art making is beneficial to the older person.
Research has shown that encouraging and supporting art making is an effective way of working with older men and women (Abraham, 2005; Kerr, 1999; Orr, 1997; Ravid-Horesh, 2004; Sezaki & Bloomgarden, 2000; Stewart, 2004). However, very little research has explored the meaning of engaging in art making for the older adult. Studies have begun to examine the nature of 'successful aging', or how some aging men or women maintain a vital and healthy lifestyle while others in their cohort become frail and isolated. The MacArthur Foundation Study (Rowe & Kahn, 1998) found that, along with a healthy lifestyle, social and creative involvement in old age is an important contributor to well-being, but there is little research about the specific benefits of creative involvement on the physical and emotional health of older adults. Yet, Wikstrom (2002) found that older women in Sweden who viewed images of famous paintings had increased happiness, peacefulness, satisfaction, and calm, in addition to improved blood pressure and better overall medical health than the control group. A study to better understand the emotional and physical health benefits of apartment-dwelling older adults who participate in the creative arts suggests that participation in creative arts programmes contributes to improved overall health (Cohen et al, 2006). In particular, the study found improved physical health, characterized as fewer visits to the doctor, fewer medications, fewer illnesses. It also revealed improved emotional health, measured as a reduced incidence of depression and isolation, compared to those in the control group who did not participate in creative arts programmes.
Although there is growing evidence that creative involvement in old age is an important contributor to well-being, the structure and process of this relationship is only recently being explored. Fisher and Specht (1999) examined the meaning of creativity as it relates to aging. They found that creative activity 'contributes to successful aging by fostering a sense of competence, purpose and growth' (p. 457). The very nature of creative activity is an opportunity to develop problem-solving skills, symbolic expression, perception and motivation and contributes to well-being throughout the life-span. These findings not only support the value of engagement in the creative arts but begin to provide insight into the ways in which older adults value these experiences.
The Research Study
The research participants in the study described here were three women living in a senior housing community in New York City, age 73 and older, who identified as artists working in drawing, painting, sculpture and collage. They were selected from the thirteen men and women applicants who responded to a recruitment flyer posted in the housing complex. I had not originally intended to restrict the study to women participants. However, after conducting interviews to screen all the applicants, only these three women were sufficiently involved in their art in an ongoing manner to talk freely about it. To preserve confidentiality they were given the pseudonyms Rose, Adeena, and Marcia. None had made art their professional career, showing and selling their work to earn money, yet they were actively making art at this stage in life.
This phenomenological study involved conducting conversational interviews about the women's experiences of making art, examining the art itself, and also occasionally observing them making art. The interview sessions, which were held in the women's apartments, explored how each approaches and experiences the art making process. All interviews were recorded, log notes kept of the art making, and the art photographed. Additionally, I began subsequent interviews checking with the artist to be sure that what I understood was in fact what she had meant to convey. The artists were always eager to tell me about their artwork, and on occasion told me how much they enjoyed talking about it as it allowed them a greater opportunity to be self-reflective. Through thematic analysis of this body of data the meanings of their creative experiences were revealed (Creswell, 1998; Kvale, 1996).
Rose, Adeena, and Marcia shared with me many aspects of their lives, including similarities and differences in the ways they approach their art making and aging, and how aging and art have each influenced the other. The interview questions addressed their creative process, the meaning of their art, their sense of identity as an artist, creative influences, and the impact of aging.
For Rose, her artwork represents a journey in learning about drawing and painting, as well as expressing subtle but important elements in her life, such as what the work means to her, and where she finds peace and serenity. Her artwork, proudly displayed in her apartment, represents powerful connections she has to people, places, and herself (Figure 1). It is significant that her own artwork continues to inspire and motivate her. For Rose, art is a means of staying connected across the generations and through the city and community. She acknowledges that making and discussing art is timeless and happens regardless of age. She also says that aging influences her art work but that also, conversely, art making influences her aging process.
The most prominent theme expressed by Rose was how important being an artist is to her in a multitude of ways. As she talked about her creative process and her artwork, it became clear that her identification as an artist has had the most profound effect in her life. For Rose, the wider context of being an artist in society, such as the sense of empowerment it brings, seems to be of utmost importance. In particular, she says being an artist has given her confidence as she ages, 'As I've gotten older I have felt more and more confident about doing things. I am able to face my age.... The fact is, there are things that are good about ageing once you accept yourself as the subject of ageing.' Rose finds art has served as a bridge for her to engage with people of any age.
Rose said that her approach to making art has changed as she has gotten older. While she has a higher level of confidence, she feels that her physical limitations, such as arthritis, at times prevent her from doing something she wants to do. For example, she says that her arthritis doesn't affect holding the paintbrush, but impacts the way she moves it. After recent surgery, she has been drawing and painting with her left, non-dominant hand because her right arm was immobilized. As a result, her work has become completely abstract, yet she feels liberated by this change, while at the same time empowered by the fact that she can continue to work without the use of her right hand. Now, Rose says, she uses playful stories to guide her work. For example, a recent pastel drawing (Figure 2) depicts a story she invented about the primary colours (red, yellow and blue) running across the page, when suddenly black enters the picture and chases the colours back to the other side. Using a story to guide and structure her work is a new and creative approach that allows her to continue her engagement in and enjoyment of making art. She expressed great joy in her ability to continue making art despite the immobilization of her dominant arm, and, in particular, this ability is especially empowering. She has been able to transcend her physical limitations to continue to express herself through art.
Though she had been creative in other ways, Adeena didn't begin to make art until her retirement from social work. Adeena is motivated to create artwork, and is now frequently showing and selling her work. Using found objects, Adeena's artwork is about paying homage to others, 'I have empathy for someone who has achieved something that's not monumental yet very important in ways that younger people couldn't even imagine. I am respecting them and respecting myself at the same time.'
Adeena grew up in England during World War II and moved to New York as a young woman. Adeena acknowledges that her art seems very much related to her childhood experience, in particular 'loss, passion and longing,' and also about many losses during wartime, such as loss of time. She knows there is a correlation between reusing discarded things in her artwork (Figure 3), paying homage of sorts, and her own desire to leave her mark on this world. As a result of wartime material shortages, especially fabric, Adeena used scraps and developed a reputation for making beautiful things from scraps, 'so I think that was the beginning of what I do now, which is working with found things,... but the found things are important... they are things I think have some value.'
The four main themes that emerged in her interviews were: paying homage to others, the influence of World War II on her life and work, the influence of aging on her art, and leaving a legacy. Adeena says that being older has given her the freedom to explore her life, reflect, and have the power and latitude to express herself without restriction. 'My work is very personal. The theme of my work is that there are precious things in life, and the symbols of them are vanishing.'
Adeena expressed many ideas about how her art is influenced by aging and how her aging process is transformed by her art. In particular, she explains how she is becoming more confident and has a greater need to share her story. Adeena has said, 'My age has made me respect the truth of myself.' She believes that having 'time and confidence' now allows her to make art. Adeena views herself as a source of history, a vessel for providing legacy, and she is worried about not having enough time left in her life to share it. In discussing how her sense of urgency also has to do with preserving herself after death, Adeena is intent on sharing both her own history and the stories of others who may otherwise be forgotten.
Recently, Adeena's technique has become freer, her work more personal, and she has made more work about war. For example, Lysistrata (Figure 4) is an emotional and powerful piece about the Holocaust. The work is large and hangs on the wall like a tapestry with three rows of folded paper that contain an assortment of print illustrations, printed text and hand written notes. Though this work appears much lighter in colour than her previous work, the content is emotionally, intellectually and politically charged. Where her previous work with tighter, less revealing folds in a way protected the viewer from the content of the work, the relative openness of this work challenges the viewer to bear and tolerate the content.
Marcia is a retired businesswoman, and has become a very prolific artist. She recently suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome, which has sapped her energy level and reduced her mobility. She spoke of her artwork in terms of 'periods,' in particular her gray and white periods. Of her work, she says, 'My paintings don't look like the paintings of an older person.' She explains that although a teacher once told her that at 40 years old an artist's painting style is set, Marcia disagrees. She notes that her style changed when she was 80 years old.
Marcia also strongly identifies as a visual artist and says that her need to make art is a strong motivational force in her life. For a woman who is not otherwise active, in part due to having a history of chronic fatigue syndrome, this motivation and focus is really important for her. Marcia says that being an artist gives her a certain status in society. In addition, it is empowering and boosts her ego: '[Being an artist]...gives me a certain status.... I'm glad I do have this identity as an artist; ... it makes me more important to myself.' Marcia at first was reluctant to consider herself an artist, but now accepts that it is important to her and also gives her a voice: 'It's an acceptance of an identity, which at first felt pretentious, but I'm feeling it's less and less pretentious, it's real.... I'm trying to do the truth of who I am, what concerns me. I think I have something that is worth saying; that's changed me.'
In discussing her gray period, which followed the paintings with the black figures, Marcia wondered if the period might be a reflection of both her sense of humour and her fear of death. In this period she was more interested in mysticism and mystery and that the paintings have more symbolism. A friend of hers also wondered if her gray period indicated Marcia's fear of death (Figure 5). While Marcia says that it is stereotypical thinking to make that connection, she does acknowledge that that is a part of her personality.
Marcia's process is one of constantly masking out parts that she doesn't like and adding more. At times you can see a ghostly halo of the paint beneath the veil, although she prefers that it be masked out completely. She suspends preconceived notions of what the work will be about and just experiences the moment and the process. She described how through making art she is discovering herself. In discussing her art, she eloquently says:
Painting gives me a goal. It makes me think that I have something to do and something to reach for, which makes me feel more alive. I think I'm fortunate to have this in my old age, because it's a leavening; it's something that's growing, that I can see. [Art is] a bridge to people; it's a bridge to other interests; it's enriching.
Marcia's recent work is definitely a shift from her previous work. In general the pieces are much larger, with a stark white background upon which she paints more angular shapes that appear to be symbols (Figure 6). The colours are more vibrant and the shapes more complex. Because of the more recognizable—or imaginable—shapes, and the fact that they appear to be either in motion or that their placement is strongly intentional, these paintings seem to have the ability to engage the viewer in imagining the message or meaning of the symbols. Overall, there seems to be a bolder, more overt message being conveyed than in her previous work.
Identity was the most prominent theme throughout the study. It seems as though art has clarified how each woman identifies herself and has given each an important dimension of who she is. Considering oneself an artist, these women have licence or permission to express themselves and are discovering ways of relating to and interacting with the world that were previously not known or identified. As such, being an artist is empowering and provides expressive tools to remain connected to others, and even deepen connection, regardless of age.
Whether because it gives one a certain status in society, as with Marcia, allows one to engage in life review and leave a legacy, as with Adeena, or increases social connections and access to others, as with Rose, being an artist is central to the identities of each of these women. They did not speak about whether or not they felt they had become more or less creative with age, a topic upon which much of the literature is focused (Alpaugh et al, 1983; Cole, 1979; Dennis, 1966; Lehman, 1953; Sasser-Coen, 1993; Simonton, 1988, 1990a, 1990b, 1990c). They did not appear to be concerned about whether or how their art provides a point of measurement for ability. Rather, for them, artistic identity provides a means to gain access to a broader life experience. Rather than being considered an artist by others, what seems to be most important to these women is that they consider themselves artists.
Art and the Aging Process
Being an artist has helped all of these women accept becoming older and has given them a sense of purpose and fulfillment in their older years. Rose, Adeena and Marcia expressed how being an artist has influenced their aging process. Their art has not only helped them to accept getting older, but has contributed to a sense of purpose, self-acceptance and self-confidence.
Rose was particularly expressive about how her art has influenced her aging process: 'The painting has grounded the aging and the aging at the same time is grounding. I approach my aging without resentment. I feel as though I have delivered some kind of message. Something has made my years worth it.' In particular, Rose explains how art has improved her self-confidence, 'I don't know whether the egg [art] came before the chicken [aging], but I know they work together. I know that the confidence, the self-confidence is there,' and, 'As I've gotten older I have felt more and more confident about doing things. I am able to face my age.... The fact is, there are things that are good about aging once you accept yourself as the subject of aging.'
Adeena noted that she has 'the time and confidence' now to make art that she didn't have when she was younger, with responsibilities as a wife, mother and with her career. As such, she reflects that, '[Some older people have] always been artists, but they—and women, too—they haven't had the opportunity to follow [their art].' As an older woman, Adeena expresses how she is learning about herself, and is now more able to respect herself: 'My age has made me respect the truth of myself.'
Likewise, Marica believes that aging is easier because of being an artist: 'I think being an artist has made aging easier.... It makes you feel more alive because you are doing—you're planning, your mind is working, you're trying to link with something different and new and fresh.... It gives me a goal,' and, 'I think [painting] makes old age richer.' She explained how being a visual artist, as opposed to a musician or actress, is beneficial in old age: 'I think I'm fortunate to have [painting] in my old age, because it's a leavening; it's something that's growing, that I can see.'
The participants all expressed that they found it easier to relax and to think independently as they have grown older. Each said she felt a greater need for self-expression as she grew older and feels more creative with age. Consistent with the studies of Reed (2005) and Simonton (1990a) as older adults these women also have an increased capacity for creativity through the mastery and integration of life experiences. Lubart and Sternberg's (1998) perspective that a person's resources for creativity expand with life experience is apparent in all three women, as they are increasingly able to draw from their life experiences, and this with a heightened level of motivation. Adeena said she feels like her work is urgent, and Rose feels compelled to share her insight with others.
In support of those who believe that a person's thinking becomes more flexible and adaptable with age, (Czikszentmihalyi, 1996; Komulainen, 1985; Reigel, 1973; Sasser-Coen, 1993), these women expressed that they are in many ways more creative now than before. For Adeena and Rose it is a function of confidence, ability, inspiration, motivation, and insight. Marcia seems to have had a fairly steady pattern of creative thinking, but most prominently it is confidence, mastery, ability, inspiration and motivation that drive her, too. Thus they state that they feel more creative and freer to experiment as they grow older. Adeena in particular has found that she has become more experimental in her work. Lindauer, Orwoll and Kelley's study (1997) found that older artists had increased spontaneity and use of abstraction, among other things, as a result of maturity and motivation. This maturity and motivation is revealed in these women as well, through their creative process as well as in the pictorial content of the work. However, it is the ways in which these artists think about art, their art making and their aging experience that have most evolved.
These women agree that they have become more creative as they have gotten older, and in particular, they receive a higher level of satisfaction from their work - reactions also noted by Lindauer, Orwoll and Kelley (1997). Especially, each of the three women mentioned that they are less concerned about the opinions of others. They feel more comfortable in who they are and in expressing themselves. Rose and Adeena also were able to speak about the changes in their work in that they have gained a greater understanding of themselves which they can therefore better express in their work. In addition, Adeena attributes her growth as an artist to having more time to make art and more confidence in her artistic ability as she has grown older.
In spite of physical challenges, the participants state that they feel highly motivated and have found ways to persevere with their artwork. The literature on creativity and aging and art therapy, and the clinical practice of art therapy, often focus on the loss of physical faculties associated with age such as eyesight and mobility (Gesner, 1985). The loss or change of physical capabilities was mentioned by each, impacting their lives in some way. However, with regard to the creative process, the changes seem to be outweighed by positive age-related emotional changes such as wisdom, motivation and self-esteem.
Marcia had been severely limited by chronic fatigue syndrome. Her poor physical health slowed down her creative process and limited her ability to leave home. While this would seem to have a great impact on her work, Marcia denied any significant effect of her illness on the artwork itself. Instead, she insisted that art making gave her motivation to get up and get to work every day, despite extreme fatigue. This could be a result of her life-long commitment to making art (Atchley, 1999) and/or some level of transcendence over her physical limitations (Tornstam, 2005).
Rose reported that arthritis affects the way she moves the brush, and a decline in vision restricts her as well. She has been burdened by several illnesses and doctors' visits since our interviews began, and as a result, she has not been able to make art or attend the open studio regularly. She denies, however, that the physical changes have a significant impact on her artwork although her physical problems have limited her ability to go to museums and galleries, which has been an important component in her creative process. Adeena didn't report any particular physical changes or loss. She spoke, rather, about the body getting old in a more general way, appearing mostly concerned with time running out.
Rose, Adeena and Marcia have each endured, to varying degrees, illness, injury and/or physical changes due to aging, which could interfere with creative activities (Lubart & Sternberg, 1998). Nevertheless each has continued her involvement in art making and other activities in spite of these physical challenges. However, each woman acknowledged compensating for physical changes in the way she makes art, consistent with findings noted by Simonton (1990a).
Research that examines the change in an artist's work due to physical losses and changes has found prominent artists whose work and process have changed dramatically because of physical changes. A closer examination and comparison of these women's artwork earlier and later in life might also reveal a significant shift due to physical weakness, changes, etc. However, these women did not express that this was a major factor for them in how or why they make art. They simply accept the physical changes. Therefore, it seems that the emotional changes in age seem to outweigh the physical changes with regard to the importance of making art and the creative process that goes along with it.
The findings of this study help us understand what is important to a person as she ages, in particular her creative outlook, creative processes, and how developing an identity as an artist can assist in reaching developmental benchmarks and confronting the challenges of aging. The findings in this study indicate that, for these women, the meaningfulness of art making as they age is less about the actual art product and more about the process of making it. These three women express that having an identity as an artist is an important and positive component of their aging process. This identity provides an internal resource that helps to enrich life and to overcome some of the challenges of aging. In particular, these women tell us that this identity:
- improves self-esteem
- serves as a bridge to expand social networks
- fosters the creation of a visual legacy
- serves as a source of motivation or sense of purpose for the continuity of work
- deepens self-understanding
- provides a tool for a cathartic experience in the face of stress or anxiety.
The experiences of these women suggest that making art contributes to satisfaction, self-esteem and wisdom, or, according to Lars Tornstam (2005) 'gerotranscendent' behaviour. While Tornstam suggests that movement toward gerotranscendence happens naturally with age, these women show us that being an artist helps them foster movement toward gerotranscendence as it gives them skills, strengths and benefits in multiple areas to contend with the challenges of aging. There are particular elements to Tornstam's theory that are evident in the experiences of these women. His theory of development toward gerotranscendence marks a change in perception of life and death in which a person is less afraid to die. Concurrent with that, older people develop a greater interest in and appreciation of future and past generations, seeing themselves linked to a continuum of history rather than an individual mark in time. This is particularly evident with Rose and Adeena, who specifically spoke about how they wanted to share their experience and knowledge with future generations. Although Marcia did not mention this, these two acknowledged that they have a great interest in sharing their experiences with following generations. It is interesting to note, however, that Marcia has also been able to use her art to transcend her illness. Marcia's motivation to make art was more powerful than the physical limitations imposed by illness, as she continued to paint prolifically when she was unable to do much else. She said that her need to make art forced her out of bed each day.
Art making by itself can be transcendent, allowing for the past, present and future to coexist at once. It can allow powerful/meaningful emotional content to be expressed, examined and recollected with a changed understanding or purpose. It involves life review as a component, but it is more than simply looking back as Butler (1963) proposes. It is looking back in order to reconnect with the present and the future.
As we learn more about how people age, we know that old age is not simply a time of decay and withdrawal. For some it is also a time of growth, wisdom and self-actualization. Rose, Adeena and Marcia tell us about their lives and what is important to them. As their stories evidence growth, wisdom and self-actualization in old age, designing art and art therapy programmes for older adults to promote these benefits would better meet the needs of individuals such as these women. A suggestion of a general set of goals might be to:
- foster a sense of artistic identity
- encourage connection to oneself and others
- provide the opportunity for legacy work
- foster a sense of purposefulness and motivation
- encourage movement toward gerotranscendence.
Research on human development indicates that development is a lifelong process and does not end at adolescence or early adulthood (Atchley, 1999; Butler, 1963; Erikson, 1959; Erikson, Erikson & Kivnick, 1986; Erikson & Erikson, 1997; Maslow, 1968; Tornstam, 2005). Rather, we continually adapt to our environment, making choices and enduring changes. In this regard, the evolution/unfolding of one's life can be hugely enriching as a source of wisdom (Baltes, Smith & Staudinger, 1992; Cohen, 2005; Tornstam, 2005). Likewise, it can be used in creative pursuits, as was the case with these women, to deepen experience and help reveal corners of ourselves - through brush stroke or pencil line - that were otherwise hidden. With the increased focus on maintaining wellness, particularly important as the population continues to grow and age, we need to expand our boundaries to include new, more permeable or flexible approaches to helping others through the use of art.
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