The Healing Power of the Creative Arts

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Our first annual Celebrate Arts Festival shines a spotlight on Educational Alliance older adult artists and their creative work for Older Americans Month. Behind these artists and their creative expression are passionate arts educators, all of whom agree that creating art in the time of COVID is more healing and impactful than ever.

A recent study from the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health looked at the effects of the pandemic on older adults in non-institutional settings and found the results “worrying.” Eighteen percent screened for depression and 17 percent anxiety. Additionally, a substantial number of older adults found themselves isolated and without meaningful connection to family, friends, and activities.

The Healing Power of Art, Connection, and Creativity

But art and connection are a proven salve for isolation, anxiety and depression, and much more. To learn more about this dynamic at work, we spoke with Educational Alliance educators Sarie Teichman, Demetra Tsantes, Federico Restepo, and Courtney Pretlow, all of whom work closely with our older adult community.

“The arts are impactful for older adults because they’re impactful for everyone,” said Courtney, a graduate student at the Pratt Institute studying Dance Movement Therapy. “With the isolation that’s come with COVID we had to find different ways to communicate – both virtual and in-person and to get them together in a way that feels comfortable.”

Sarie Teichman noted a similar response at the Sirovich Center for Balanced Living, where, to keep older adults safe and healthy, they pivoted quickly from in-person to Zoom classes and events. “The arts was – and still is – truly a lifeline, for the participants and for me. It was healing to come together, be creative, and feel less isolated.”

Not only did older adults create through virtual means, they maintained their connection to each other by sharing information and resources to help keep each other safe and healthy. “In our theater group we added class time for people to share their pandemic experiences,” Sarie added. “And we checked in to make sure everyone was okay and received any services they needed.”

Founder of Loco 7 Dance Puppet Theater Company Federico Restepo leads the workshop Studies in Puppet Form and Performance. Federico saw that not only were his older adult students collaborating in class, they were taking their connections offline, too.

“The time we spend together as a group gives a lot of conversations,” Federico said. “They create a friendship between them, which develops the work. And then we build. We make puppets. They are creating and building hand puppets, that’s a lot of work with the hands, cutting and painting. That is really good to keep engaging with their hands and imagination.”

Demetra Tsantes is a dance and fitness instructor working across EA’s older adult sites, and she has noticed a positive link between movement, creation, connection, and healing. “When we talk about movement and fitness and dance, we create physical and emotional space so we can process and let go of certain things. Not only does dance and fitness lower stress and anxiety, they are making friends, meeting new people, and now seeing people they hadn’t during COVID.”

Creative Work is Healing for both Teachers and Students

The road of creativity and healing is one that runs both ways, from teachers to students and back again.

“Older Adults show me what perseverance looks like,” Courtney said. “We’ve all been through COVID, and they went through desegregation, and gay rights, and these huge historical moments. Sometimes it’s hard to keep pushing forward, but they show me that, yes, we can get through this and that there’s never an end to learning. They are always ready to learn.”

Sarie told us, “It’s healing to come together, be creative, and feel less isolated. I work with older adults from ages 60 to almost 99, and I am continually inspired and touched by their creativity, humor, candor, their amazing resilience, and their ability to be there for each other.”

When COVID landed and classes were chased online, Federico said that what felt like a pivot in a scary time transformed into a new creative experience. “We broke into one-on-ones [on Zoom], which was a very beautiful experience. Crafting our stories, we looked to the future. They taught me how much we have in front of us all the time – and we have to see life as full of life to the end. There is a misconception of getting older. We have to value and appreciate and respect and open our minds to older adults because they walk too many things before us.”

During the pandemic, Demetra has observed her students becoming more confident in taking care of themselves and each other. “Before the pandemic, people were thinking about self-care like a mani-pedi or a massage,” she said. “Now people are taking an exercise class to keep their immune system strong, to stay independent in their home, to see friends over a meal. Older adults are really motivating me and each other.”

Courtney, the arts therapy graduate student at Pratt, articulated an uncomfortable truth: there is a lot of stigma around aging. But art can bring people together, create space for connection, and provide venues for healing. “Many times, older adults don’t feel valued,” she said. “But creative work reminds them that they always have value.”

You can see (and even purchase) their art work and live performances at the first annual Celebrate Arts Festival. All proceeds benefit older adult arts programs. We hope you’ll join us!

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