The Expressive Arts Promote Health in the Elderly

Creative Arts for Seniors

Expressive arts may be finding a place in the medical community as more and more practitioners are realizing their therapeutic benefits. A majority of the focus has been placed on dementia care, but if expressive art therapy works in the way it has for many dementia patients, there is no reason it shouldn’t work for elderly with other less diminishing ailments. The less pharmaceutical prescriptions being handed out and more individualized care provided, the healthier our elderly will become.  Caregivers do well to understand the benefits of encouraging their elderly charges to engage in artistic endeavors. Everyone involved in the caregiving scenario will benefit.

A Non-Pharmaceutical Approach to Long-Term Care 

Our nation’s health care crisis is no well-kept secret. We pay more for health care than any other nation with no expectation of slowing down. As a result, insurance companies and policy makers are turning to cost-reduction strategies, including unnecessary pharmaceutical use. The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services has particularly looked at reducing the prevalence of antipsychotic medication in the dementia-afflicted elderly population. They found that almost 40% of nursing home residents were receiving antipsychotic medications to treat behavioral issues and cognitive impairment, yet didn’t have a related diagnosis. Over 17% were being overmedicated.

As they looked across multiple states, CMS researchers found a multidimensional approach worth investigating in order to meet their goal of a 15% reduction in antipsychotic drug administration. In addition to re-evaluating the prescription process and focusing more qualitatively on individual centered care, researchers found that the expressive arts may just prove to hold a crucial key that not only reduces health care costs by way of reducing prescription medication, yet also reduces costs because the patients are actually getting healthier.

Benefits of Art and Music Therapy 

Art therapy has been studied at length and been proven to help with numerous cognitive and behavioral conditions, including addiction, mental illness, and particularly the dementias. The activities of coloring, drawing, and painting have been shown to provide individuals with meaningful stimulation that improves self-esteem and as a result increases social interaction.

Music therapy has been acclaimed in even greater ways. Either by singing, playing a musical instrument, or just listening to music, older people experience a significant reduction in agitation. It has been found to help reduce abnormal vocalizations in aging dementia patients.

…engaging in creative arts gave people a sense of control–

According to researchers who conducted the Creative and Aging Study, engaging in creative arts gave people a sense of control–that is, they gained a sense of mastery, and this led to positive health outcomes.

The expressive arts provide a platform of engagement where older people can experience individual mastery. It only makes sense when one stops to think about the very nature of humans from the time we are born. We constantly strive to master something, from taking our first steps to our education, to our careers, child rearing, and retirement. If there is nothing to strive for or look forward to anymore, people tend to decline. Creating something slows this decline.

Expressive Arts Provide a Crucial Link to Social Engagement 

In conjunction with individual mastery, the other aspect of the expressive arts that makes them such a viable non-pharmaceutical option is the opportunity for social engagement with others. Much research is coming out examining the nature of dementia and the need to expand dementia care. Greater attempts are being made to view the quality of life as more of an individual experience rather than a generalized treatment for a disease. Social interaction with others and expressive art therapy drive home this point in a highly relevant way.

What if nursing home physicians were to begin handing out prescriptions for painting classes or piano lessons? Other nations, like Sweden, implement prescribed physical activity for seniors before prescribing medications, and they have the lowest healthcare costs in the world. They also have the happiest, longest-living seniors on the planet. It may take a while to shift the prescription solution paradigm in America, but if singing and coloring are on the table, there is certainly nothing to lose and potentially much to gain.

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Bonner, Alice. (January 31, 2013. Improving Dementia Care and Reducing Unnecessary Use of Antipsychotic Medications in Nursing Homes. Division of Nursing Homes. Center for Clinical Standards and Quality, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Available at Last Visited March 16, 2016.

Douglas, Simon, James, Ian, Ballard, Clive. (2004). Advances in Psychiatric Treatment. Non-Pharmacological Interventions in Dementia. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 10(3):171-177. Available at Last Visited March 16, 2016.

National Endowment for the Arts and The Center on Aging, Health & Hunanities, The Geroge Washington University (2006). The Creative and Aging Study. The Impact of Professionally Conducted Cultural Programs on Older Adults. Available at Last Visited March 16, 2016.