The Physical and Mental Health Benefits of Creativity for Older Adults

June 24th, 2015

Participation in creative endeavors, the process of exploring new possibilities through problem-solving and building new products or outcomes, can greatly benefit both physical and mental health for seniors. Older adults can tap into creative endeavors through movement, performance, art, writing, inventing, recipes, or just by trying something new. By encouraging your senior patients to pursue these activities, you’ll help them not with maintaining their mental flexibility, but with handling new challenges, maximizing social relationships, and finding their inner spark.

Inspiration Through Wisdom

Developmental growth in the later stages of life often leads to the desire to be creative. Wisdom and maturity can’t be taught at a young age; it results from development through aging, knowledge gathering, emotional and practical life experiences, and changes in brain function. Older adults integrate these pieces to achieve profound insights. As discussed by Gene Cohen in the paper Creativity with Aging, there are four developmental phases in the second half of life that shape the way creative energy grows and is expressed:

  • Midlife reevaluation (40s or 50s). The storied midlife crisis is actually an experience of being motivated to evaluate one’s personal and professional life and seek out ways to make it more gratifying. This phase combines insightful reflection with a strong drive to create meaning in one’s life, thereby intensifying creative expression.
  • Liberation (60s). This stage comes about as older adults experience the freedom of retirement and have more time to explore new ways to express themselves. These adults are also more comfortable with themselves and less concerned about the image others have of them.
  • Summing up (70s). Older adults in their 70s and beyond are often in the process of looking back at their lives in a continued quest to see the larger meaning of life. They generally become the keepers of cultural history and want to share the wisdom they’ve gained in their lifetime. This process often contributes to creativity in the form of giving back, through such activities as autobiography, storytelling, volunteering, community activism, and philanthropy. The summing-up process may also offer the impetus for new creative endeavors that these adults never got the chance to explore before.
  • Encore (80s). At this age, creative expression is about making a lasting statement or completing unfinished business. These seniors’ advancing age stimulates the energy to make one final statement or add to the contributions they’ve been making toward their communities or families.

The creative brilliance possible in these advanced stages of development can be seen in the lives of various famous people as well as in the ordinary lives of those from our own families and communities.

Physical Health Benefits, Empowerment, and Socialization

Active participation in creative activities has been shown to improve both physical and mental health for seniors. Leading-edge research in this area compared the health impact of older adults who participated in a professionally led chorale group to a control group of seniors who just participated in their regular activities. The chorale group participants had fewer doctor visits, fewer falls, lower rates of medication usage, and lower levels of depression — and that was still the case one year later. Other studies have found similar results for those engaged in creative activities, such as lower anxiety levels, improved life satisfaction, and decreased depression. According to Mary Rockwood Lane, creative expression also influences the autonomic nervous system, stabilizes heart rate and hormone levels, and stimulates the release of endorphins.

Older adults who achieve a level of mastery in certain creative pursuits can experience additional positive health outcomes. Mastering an activity can have a profound effect on a senior, who may feel more empowered once she realizes that she has performed well at something. She might then consider pursuing other activities that she may have once viewed as impossible. The arts provide great opportunities for experiencing this new sense of mastery, which can lead to an increased level of comfort in exploring new challenges.

Creative activities and involvement in the arts can provide regular opportunities for socializing as well, and social engagement in later years is particularly important when it comes to mental health for seniors. Creative pursuits provide a chance to make connections over similar interests while simultaneously limiting a tendency toward isolation, which could lead to loneliness and depression. Many forms of art provide an opportunity for social interaction, such as musical groups, writing groups, and groups or classes engaged in painting, drama, and dance.

Creativity’s Effects on the Older Adult Brain

Another benefit to creative endeavors is the role they play in the brain elasticity of older adults. In recent years, the field of behavioral neuroscience has discovered more about the brain’s ability to adapt and keep itself vital. Researchers have found that sustained, creative challenges are a way to help keep brains fit. When the brain is challenged with activity, it is altered through the formation of new synapses, the contact points between cells. An increased number of synapses improves communication across cells, in turn opening up the chance for new ideas and expanded thinking. Art activities are especially helpful in this regard, because they are more likely to be sustained over a long period of time. Similar to the impact of doing regular physical activity, greater benefits can be experienced when the creative activity is ongoing.

Art activities that stimulate cognitive functioning can also benefit those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. For instance, involvement in creative activities has been found to reduce depression and isolation among dementia patients. Another study found that art therapy can improve the vitality and quality of life of patients with mild Alzheimer’s disease.

Matching Creative Pursuits to Spheres of Intelligence

Of course, creative expression is much more than just artistic pursuits. Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner postulates that each person has a unique blend of between seven and ten different types of intelligence. A person’s predominate type(s) of intelligence influence their interests and pursuits, meaning that different types of people will be drawn to different types of creative activities.

The following list of activities is grouped according to the different types of intelligence; some may be seen as more traditional art forms, while others are activities that could stimulate creativity in your senior patients:

  • Social/Interpersonal. Starting or joining a discussion group, getting together regularly with friends, joining a league or club, video-chatting regularly with family or friends
  • Musical. Learning (or relearning) to play an instrument, attending a concert, singing, listening to music
  • Spatial. Drawing, painting, sculpting, scrapbooking, taking art classes, making cards, designing a garden, learning flower arranging
  • Bodily/Kinesthetic. Walking, golfing, biking, taking yoga or Pilates classes, swimming, dancing, taking acting classes or performing in a play
  • Logical/Mathematical. Doing puzzles or Sudoku, working out brainteasers, organizing a collection, playing strategy games or cards
  • Verbal/Linguistic. Telling stories, writing, participating in a book club or writing group
  • Intrapersonal. Reading, journaling, meditating, recording a personal history, writing an autobiography
  • Naturalistic. Walking in nature, collecting rocks or shells, gardening, bird-watching

Guiding Your Patients to New Creative Pursuits

The above list offers a wide range of options for seniors interested in becoming more creative in their lives. Creativity may take a traditional form such as art, dance, or music, or it could be expressed in other ways that are more enjoyable for that individual. Whichever form it takes, some patients may need guidance and encouragement to discover the best way to benefit from creative expression. The following suggestions can be used by physicians, nurses, coaches, or therapists who work with older adults:

  1. Most seniors wouldn’t describe themselves as creative, but they may be limiting their definition to such activities as painting and writing. Simply remind them that everyone is creative in their own way, and that they may need to try a few options before finding a fun match.
  2. Encourage seniors to explore the areas where they’ve been creative earlier in life. If they haven’t had those outlets, it’s worthwhile to find out why. This can help inform your discussion of the types of activities that may or may not be a good fit.
  3. Introduce the idea of becoming more creatively involved, especially if your patients relate to some of the study examples cited earlier. Ask if they have particular activities that they already know they would like to try.
  4. Discuss the steps that might be involved in getting started, and help them strategize around any barriers they may see. A first step could be to explore resources at the local community center. Websites are another good first step, given the wealth of information available online.
  5. You might suggest encouraging a friend or family member to join in. It’s often easier to start a new activity or habit with the support of a loved one.
  6. Suggest trying an activity or multiple activities more than once before deciding whether to pursue it. A number of factors could contribute to a poor first impression on an activity that might ultimately be a perfect match.

Pursuing creativity later in life may initially seem like a daunting task for your patients. But mental health for seniors is important to their overall well-being, making it a worthwhile endeavor. Plus, the later stages of life often make creative expression a fulfilling prospect that can be found in a variety of activities. There’s no one right way to be creative.