Diving into art!

Many older adults question whether they have the time, the talent or practical ability to make art.


Art: The very word can strike fear in many.

Will it be graded? How will it be judged? Is it even good enough to share? 

From our youth, we’re taught how to “do” art. Whether that means learning musical notes during piano lessons or being instructed not to color outside the lines, we learn the rules of art so that at some point, we can break them.

However, much like standing at the edge of the dock on an early summer day, the thought of jumping into art can be enough to make us shiver. Similarly, the more we bind ourselves to what rules of art we’ve learned — or wonder whether we’re doing it right or worry if the end product will be good enough — the more we can thwart our ability to express ourselves creatively.

Creativity is ageless

Art can take any form. It has no age requirements, no necessary credentials, no educational minimums. Art welcomes us all to dive in, and make a splash. Yet many older adults express apprehension — questioning whether they have the time, the talent or practical ability.

So how do we muster the courage to dive in when physical, emotional or even cognitive changes might be challenging us or someone close to us?

Perhaps we fear we won’t perform the art form we’d enjoyed for much of our life to the ability we once could — or worry that physical aspects of the art will make it impossible to engage in a preferred art form any longer. We might outright fear the risk of trying a new form of art altogether, believing that age or ability might be a barrier.

The truth is that our human need for self-expression doesn’t diminish with age. It might, in fact, grow stronger. Not only does engaging in art provide purpose and meaning, throughout the lifespan, but it also assists both our brains and our bodies. Many forms of art, from painting to dance to sculpture, incorporate both physical and cognitive components.

What science tells us

Research has consistently shown that music, for example, whether listening, playing or singing, holds an incredible key to unlocking and enhancing various brain processes, including memory.

Jennifer Bugos, a researcher at the University of South Florida, found that people ages 60–85 who engaged in piano instruction showed improved attention and concentration, which benefitted overall working memory.

Bugos expanded her research to include general participation in music-based activities. Again, older adults experienced gains — in processing speed, verbal fluency and cognitive control.

It appears that musical instruction has a beneficial impact regardless of the age of introduction.

Jump in!

As kids, when shivering on the dock, we didn’t worry where the water was going to splash or if it would splash in the expected direction; in that moment, we didn’t think about the rules. We thought of the fun we could be having if we could overcome our fears, and give it a try.

We — caregivers and our care partners — can do the same with art and music.

Getting involved with art helps generate a sense of belonging and community. Friendships might even arise through shared interests.

Be fearless: Participate in an art fair to enjoy a summer afternoon, visit a museum (or three!), enroll in a pottery class or take up those tuba lessons that have long been put off.

Art, whatever the form, can be an incredible tool for self-care. It can help rekindle memories, stimulate the mind/body connection, create social connections, generate purpose and meaning, and help us all get back in touch with our inner child, who so eagerly wishes to explore — at all ages.

Nate Cannon is an author, policy consultant and dementia specialist based out of the Twin Cities. He holds an MFA from Hamline University.