Creativity and Aging
by Dr. Lisa Campbell
We are learning from research that creativity helps us age in a couple important ways. The creative process, as defined by Fisher and Specht (1999), involves being open to new ideas and approaches, in order to seek an original solution for a problem or challenge at hand. In this sense, creativity offers us a means to process and respond healthily to the many physical and social changes common as we age. Creativity may spark some to paint or dance or sing; for others, it might assist in planning a unique housing arrangement, making meaning of one's experience, or transcending one's limitations.
Studies are also showing us that creative expression improves physical and psychological health. Creativity stimulates activity in the brain, such that neurons grow and communicate more, which may improve memory and intellectual processes. It also encourages the parasympathetic nervous system to relax-heart rate and breathing slow down, and blood pressure decreases; and the autonomic nervous system to stabilize blood flow and hormone levels. Creative expression also may stimulate the release of endorphins (related to "runner's high"), improving brain functioning and contributing to pleasure and satisfaction.
Helen's story illustrates the power of creative expression to both heal and connect. As she neared 80, Helen decided that she needed a change-her knees were bothering her, and the home she shared with her two brothers was so overrun with the accumulation of decades that she could barely get around. She moved into the local nursing home. Helen had spent much of her career writing, but had never delved much into other forms of art. In the nursing home, with plenty of time on her hands, and an art room all her own after dinnertime, she took up painting. She used magazine art as models at first, creating water color portraits of porcelain dolls or animal figurines. As people noticed her work, and passed along requests, Helen expanded her repertoire and began to print out lines of poetry or story to go along with the picture.
She loved to paint, she discovered, and she especially loved to share. She'd sell pieces for a dollar to visitors, and at the holidays, she'd turn the paper medicine cups into Christmas ornaments complete with sparkly sequins and colorful yarn, and sell those too. The nursing home convinced a local bank to display Helen's artwork, and she reveled in being a local star. Helen's knees were still bad, such that she sat in a wheelchair, but her creative life was blossoming so vitally that she never seemed to notice or care what she couldn't do.