Healing Power of the Arts for Older Adults

Theater, music, sculpture — art is a means of expression. But whether you’re making art or experiencing it, art also serves as a means to improve your well-being, which can be especially helpful during these Covid-19 times.

Art has a unique effect on older adults specifically — one that researchers are looking into.

“There has been plenty of research coming out in the last decade — and it is only increasing — that demonstrates the healing power of the arts and cultural enrichment for older adults,” says Lucas Livingston, former assistant director of accessibility and lifelong learning at the Art Institute of Chicago.

People 55 and older who create and attend art — such as painting, playing a musical instrument, visiting an art museum, or attending a concert — show lower rates of hypertension and greater cognitive and physical functioning compared to others, according to a 2017 study by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Creating art gives the brain food for thought and lifts the spirits, providing a necessary boost during the pandemic.

Continuous learning has many benefits for older adults, says Livingston, who wrote about lifelong learning in the age of Covid-19 for the American Society on Aging’s Generation Now.

“Making art stimulates our brain and creates those neural pathways that keep us sharp,” Livingston says. “Learning new things stimulates our pleasure centers and makes us happy. Therefore, it reduces stress, which is especially important during this time of heightened anxiety around our health.”

Making art also empowers older adults by offering them opportunities to express their emotions, hone their self-identity, and give free rein to the imagination.

“I like to say that cultural enrichment should be a part of our overall health regime along with healthy eating, diet, and exercise,” Livingston says.

Participating in the arts also can combat loneliness, which affects 43% of adults age 60 and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Evidence demonstrates that chronic loneliness and social isolation is not only mentally and psychologically detrimental to health, but also physically debilitating and in extremes leads to premature mortality,” Livingston says. “Attending an art class helps older adults make connections with others.”

Creating art

Art classes held at community centers and other locations bring people together. Currently, many classes are offered online.

During the weekly Thursday Afternoon Salon at the Hyde Park Art Center, older adults learn about an artist chosen by a member of the group, discuss the artwork, and then create a piece of art inspired by it.

“Participants said they enjoyed the camaraderie that developed during the classes, not only because of their shared interest in art, but also because they had so many life experiences in common,” says Gregory Smith, director of partnerships at the Hyde Park Art Center.

Previously held in person, the salon is now being offered online. When in-person classes resume at the Hyde Park Art Center, Smith intends to keep an online component for participants who prefer to remain at home.

Chicago-resident Shaila Small, 80, attended art classes in person before the Covid-19 pandemic. She still participates online and values the interaction as well as the creativity.

“I signed up for the art class as a newcomer to Chicago because I wanted to meet people,” Small says. “In addition, I wanted to give some structure to my time with something to do on a specific day. The art class gave me a built-in structural staircase.”

Through the classes, she says she “fell in love with collage, which is a very creative art form.” Small also participated in a print class that involved a multilayered process that took some time to arrive at the final product. She says she was thrilled when the greeting cards that she had created and designed finally came off the printing press.

“Learning is wonderful. I hope a day doesn’t go by when I don’t learn something new,” she says.

Chicago-area arts opportunities

While performing arts organizations have postponed their live performances, many are offering performances and programs online. Most art museums in the Chicago area are now open and adhering to safety recommendations such as requiring masks, social distancing, and limiting the number of visitors.

Below is a sampling of upcoming arts-related programs in the Chicago area. Local libraries and park districts also often offer arts programs for older adults.

  • Art Institute of Chicago: “Monet and Chicago,” through Jan. 18, 2021. The general public needs to purchase advance tickets to the museum and also reserve their spot in the virtual exhibition line at the entrance to the Monet exhibition. Restaurants and valet parking are not currently available, $19 seniors ($14 senior Chicago resident, $16 senior Illinois resident), plus an additional $7 for the Monet exhibition. 312-443-3600, artic.edu
  • Chicago Shakespeare Theater: “Peter Pan: A Musical Adventure,” stream-at-home viewing of Chicago Shakespeare’s 2018 production this winter — run dates and tickets prices TBA; “I, Shakespeare,” stream at home or attend in person, winter 2021. 312-595-5650, chicagoshakes.com
  • Chicago Sinfonietta: Known as America’s 21st century orchestra. Each concert this season includes commissioned world premieres by African American composers. “MLK Tribune Concert,” Jan. 18, stream at home; “Fusion: Stronger, Together,” May 2021, in-person concert, details TBA. The Concert Digital Guides Archive, a variety of musical microsites, is free online. 312-284-1554, chicagosinfonietta.org
  • Chicago Symphony Orchestra: CSO Sessions, curated with the artistic guidance of Zell Music Director Riccardo Muti, offers chamber music pieces from 17th to 21st century composers, hosted by CSO musicians. Each episode will premiere on Thursdays through 2020 and be available for on-demand streaming for 30 days, $15 for one episode, with 20% discount for three or more episodes. 312-294-3000, cso.org/tv
  • Elmhurst Art Museum: “Wright Before the ‘Lloyd,’” an in-person exhibition focusing on the early career of Frank Lloyd Wright, through Feb. 14, 2021, $12 seniors, advance ticket purchase encouraged. Self-guided walking tour of Elmhurst modern architecture, free with admission. 630-834-0202, elmhurstartmuseum.org
  • Hedwig Dances: Contemporary dance theater ensemble. “ASCENDance,” stream-at-home performance, Nov. 15-22, followed by “Creating ASCENDance,” a conversation with artistic director Jan Bartoszek and collaborators, Nov. 22, 3 p.m., $0-$25, pay what you wish; Cuban salsa and Afro-Cuban Zoom online dance classes, fall season through Nov. 25. 312-291-8196, hedwigdances.com
  • Hyde Park Art Center: Adult Art Class 65+, online, dates TBA, contribute what you can; Thursday Afternoon Salon, online, Thursdays, 1 p.m., free (email gsmith@hydeparkart.org for details); “Artists Run Chicago 2.0,” an exhibition examining the unique independent artist-run spaces and organizations in Chicago, through Nov. 2; “Cuts & Beats,” photography, video, and texts exploring masculinity, ancestry, and artistic and intellectual pursuits of Black Americans by Cecil McDonald Jr., Nov. 15-March 7, 2021,free, reserve in advance or limited walk-ins. 773-324-5520, hydeparkart.org
  • Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art: “Outsider Art: The Collection of Victor F. Keen,” through Jan. 3, 2021, $5, advance tickets required, the museum’s website offers a virtual tour of the exhibition. 312-243-9088, art.org
  • Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago: “Just Connect,” artworks from the museum’s collection that explore how we connect, through Nov. 8; “Paint,” works that examine how the traditional art of painting is being redefined with digital tools, through Nov. 15; “Alien vs. Citizen,” through Feb. 21, 2021. $8 seniors, advanced online purchase of tickets required, first hour of the day reserved for people at increased risk. 312-280-2660, mcachicago.org
  • Old Town School of Folk Music: Online music and dance classes including “Ballet Light & Easy” and beginners/introductory classes in community choir, ukulele, guitar, and jug band ensemble that would be good for seniors; free “Second Half” online community musical jam sessions, fall session, Oct. 26 through Dec. 14. 773-728-6000, oldtownschool.org
  • Skokie Northshore Sculpture Park: Two miles of tree-shaded paths along the north channel of the Chicago River, self-guided tour available on the website. East side of McCormick Blvd., between Dempster St. and Touhy Ave. in Skokie. Free, open daily during daylight hours. 847-679-4265, sculpturepark.org