In 2007, Lonnie Sue Johnson’s life was turned upside down by illness. A rare form of viral encephalitis struck without any warning, wiping out her memory and ability to speak.
After months of slow progress, Lonnie Sue asked for a pen and paper. She had been an artist all of her life, and her doctors and family discovered that in spite of severe cognitive impairment limiting her speech, she was still able to draw.
Lonnie Sue’s story is exceptional, but it can be seen as a parable of the healing power of art. Creative expression, in its various forms, can foster healing and self-renewal in people from all walks of life. Whether you draw, sing, paint, sculpt, write poems or dance, chances are that your creative passion will bring you not only enrichment in day-to-day life, but also better health.
How Seniors Can Benefit from the Arts
Seniors are able to take advantage of many health benefits related to this connection to creativity. Researchers have found that people experience a “liberation phase” soon after retirement, in which inhibitions fade and new experiences are suddenly available like never before. This stage of life is ripe for self-expression and creative exploration. One research study examined a large group of seniors engaged in community art programs in three major U.S. cities. After a year, those who participated in the art programs had fewer hospital visits, improved mental health, decreased mortality and a greater sense of community involvement than their non-creative peers in the study. This research is one more example of what science has been telling us about the importance of developing new neural connections and remaining vital through creative engagement.
How We Can Benefit from Different Art Forms
While research has made it clear that creative expression is healthy, is one form of expression any more potent than another? Will drawing make you healthier than playing an instrument?
Here’s a closer look at how some different mediums can benefit our health and well-being:
Drawing/Visual Art: As an everyday habit, drawing or painting is a great way to engage different areas of the brain and also to reduce stress. Less stress is great for the immune system and reduces our risk for heart disease. Drawing can lead to a feeling of mastery especially beneficial for seniors. Researchers think that when we experience a feeling o f mastery over a skill or subject, our immune system increases production of important T cells and antibodies that improve our defense against illness.
Creative Writing: Many suffering from depression or anxiety have found therapeutic benefits in writing. In one specific study, a group of student volunteers spent weeks writing about their lives. Those who wrote about traumatic or emotional experiences reported improved mood, less illness and even showed signs of higher immune-system functioning.
A famous example is the poet William Carlos Williams. After suffering a debilitating stroke in later life, Williams was forced to quit his job. He worked his way out of depression through poetry, and the end result was the work Pictures from Brueghel and Other Collected Poems, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize.
Singing: If you’ve ever sung regularly with a group of people, the chances are you felt a close sense of connection with that group. Science has an explanation for this: singing with others actually causes our bodies to release hormones that give rise to increased feelings of bonding. By increasing our sense of connectedness to others, singing can reduce stress and our risk for heart disease. According to one study, patients recovering from a stroke made better progress if they made singing a part of their rehabilitation. Another study showed that listening to music can help stroke patients improve their memory and concentration.
It’s never too late to get in touch with your inner muse. If you’ve stayed away from the arts in earlier life, you may be ripe with material just waiting for its chance to come out.