The Healing Power of Art

By Lucas Livingston

It seems lately I am often hearing about the changing landscape of lifelong learning (defined here as older adult non-formal learning) as we come to better understanding the positive impacts of intellectual and creative engagement later in life. This was pointed out in previous LEARN Council blog posts. Linda Maurice recounted a reassignment of lifelong learning at her university from the geriatrics division to community education, affirming lifelong learning's holistic value above and beyond its medical impact. Sandra von Doetinchem emphasized the shifting demographics of our aging population and the imperative to accommodate older adults in their final years, who may encounter greater barriers to learning. Adding to the changing landscape of lifelong learning is the increasing body of evidence demonstrating the healing power of art.

While lifelong learning certainly encompasses all subjects, mounting research and evidence has focused on the psychological, social, cognitive, and physiological benefits of exposure to the arts, including both creative expression (i.e. making art) and attending arts and cultural experiences. The 2017 National Endowment for the Arts publication "Staying Engaged: Health Patterns of Older Americans Who Participate in the Arts: An Analysis Based on the Health and Retirement Study" examined longitudinal data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS). The HRS tracked health profiles of a nationally representative sample of older adults age 55 years and older from 2002 to 2014 and recorded their self-reported arts engagement patterns from 2014. The data demonstrates the power of the arts to combat hypertension and cognitive and physical decline. Respondents to the study also reported that the arts help them stay active and engaged and socialize with family and friends.

The importance of socialization as a goal in lifelong learning should not be discounted. Aging often naturally increases the risk and likelihood of isolation, loneliness, and depression through the passing of a partner, changes to one's social network, and decreased mobility. Loneliness and social isolation are being described as a public health crisis; the silent epidemic of twenty-first century. The Foundation for Art and Healing compares loneliness to being as lethal as smoking fifteen cigarettes per day. Dr. Jeremy Nobel of the Foundation for Art and Healing and Dr. Heather Stuckey ascertained in their 2010 review of current literature that "[e]ngagement with creative activities has the potential to contribute toward reducing stress and depression and can serve as a vehicle for alleviating the burden of chronic disease."

With advanced age, however, come multiple barriers to participating in the arts, such as the difficulty in accessing the location, poor physical health, and the lack of a partner or friend with whom to participate. With the aforementioned changing landscape of lifelong learning, as our population ages and life expectancy increases, there is an imperative among lifelong learning providers to incorporate strategies that surpass barriers and accommodate learners in their final years. In addition to adapting arts venues to be more welcoming and accessible to older adults, cultural organizations are increasingly bringing the arts to lifelong learners. For a quarter century, retirement communities in the greater Chicagoland area have welcome the Art Institute of Chicago into their homes for enriching art presentations and conversations thanks to the museum's Art Insights program, which is generously support from the Hulda B. and Maurice L. Rothschild Foundation. Beyond the value of continued learning, this program facilitated by museum volunteers fosters a sense of community through conversation, provides an environment of meaningful social validation, and helps isolated individuals maintain an important civic relationship even when they can no longer easily visit the museum. In 2016 and 2017, over 85% of surveyed participants, who claimed to have visited the Art Institute before, indicated that the program reminded them of their visits to the museum. Going beyond a physical presence in the community, programs such as Covia's Well Connected in California and Mather LifeWay's Telephone Topics in Chicago create opportunities for lifelong learning through the blessedly low-tech solution of the telephone. As an extension of Art Insights, the Art Institute partners with Well Connected and Telephone Topics to offer arts programming over the phone as we mutually strive to bring the healing power of art to even the most isolated of individuals.

Lifelong learning can have its ripple effect, too. Volunteerism with a lifelong learning arts program can be as beneficial as participating. The audience served through the Art Institute's lifelong learning programs is as much its volunteers as it is the older adults within retirement communities. The volunteers themselves are predominately of retirement age and are as at risk for the social, psychological, and physical changes associated with aging. Though the evidence remains anecdotal, the volunteers often express to me the sense of worth, affirmation, empowerment, and community that their activity as a museum volunteer fosters.

Art museums are increasingly embracing the value of therapy, wellness, and healing through educational programs, while there seems also to be a movement in society to consider arts engagement as a prescription for good health. I find it exciting to be in the field at the forefront of the changing landscape of lifelong learning recognizing the healing power of art.

Lucas Livingston is assistant director of Accessibility and Lifelong Learning Programs at the Art Institute of Chicago.


The Art Institute of Chicago. Art Insights.

Blume-Kohout, Margaret E.; Leonard, Sara R. and Novak Jennifer L. 2015. "When Going Gets Tough: Barriers and Motivations Affecting Arts Attendance." National Endowment for the Arts.

Cohen, Gene D. et al. 2006. "The Impact of Professionally Conducted Cultural Programs on the Physical Health, Mental Health, and Social Functioning of Older Adults." The Gerontologist 46 (6): 726-734.

Covia. Well Connected.

The Foundation for Art and Healing.

Gardiner, Clare. 2018. "An insidious global epidemic of loneliness is affecting the mental health of older adults." Aging Today, November-December 2018.

Hafner, Katie. 2016. "Researchers Confront an Epidemic of Loneliness." The New York Times, September 5, 2016.

Livingston, Lucas, Gerri Fiterman Persin, and Deborah Del Signore. 2016. “Art in the Moment: Evaluating a Therapeutic Wellness Program for People with Dementia and their Care Partners.” Journal of Museum Education 41 (2): 100-109.

Livingston, Lucas and Calgary Haines-Trautman. 2018. “Equitable Access: Leveraging Multi-sensory Strategies to Engage and Empower Museum Learners of Diverse Abilities.” CIPEG Journal, no. 2: 27-40.

Mather LifeWays. Telephone Topics.

Rajan, Kumar B. and Rekha S. Rajan. 2017. “Staying Engaged: Health Patterns of Older Americans Who Participate in the Arts: An Analysis Based on the Health and Retirement Study.” National Endowment for the Arts.

Stuckey, Heather L. and Jeremy Nobel. 2010. "The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health: A Review of Current Literature." American Journal of Public Health 100 (2): 254-263.

The UnLonely Project. 2015. "Can Art be Medicine?" March 25, 2015.