The Role of Museums in Health & Aging

By Lucas Livingston

If you've read my AgeBlog post last year, The Healing Power of Art, you’ll know that the topic of healthy living and aging through arts and cultural enrichment is really taking off. Conversations within academia go back decades connecting art enrichment with cognitive and emotional health (see Carlson 1991 and Cohen 2000). It seems, however, in recent years that there has been a broad upswell beyond academia in the popular recognition that the arts can play a vital role in one's overall health regime and museums are stepping up to the plate.

For some years, museums have been encountering the proverbial canary in the coal mine on the imperative to address healthy aging through arts and cultural enrichment. Eight years ago, Elizabeth Merritt, the American Alliance of Museum’s (AAM) Vice President for Strategic Foresight and the Founding Director of the Center for the Future of Museums, advanced the conversation in her timely and constructive AAM blog post. One exciting recent development has been AAM’s establishment of the Aroha Senior Fellow for Museums and Creative Aging and the ongoing blog series Ad Summa: Museums and Creative Aging. I look forward to bridging the conversations between ASA and AAM in my forthcoming AgeBlog interview with Elizabeth Merritt.

Recognizing the health and well-being benefits of cultural enrichment and the expectations of the 21st century’s aging population, more and more museums are embracing creative aging and lifelong learning. One recent spike has been through the Catalyzing Creative Aging initiative. Seeking to build capacity with arts organizations to serve older adults, the National Guild for Community Arts Education in partnership with Lifetime Arts launched the multi-phase Catalyzing Creative Aging initiative to support twenty U.S. nonprofit arts organizations in the establishment of new programs for older adults.

Particularly intriguing is the growing collaboration between museums and the healthcare industry. A little over a year ago, the blogosphere lit up with the announcement that doctors in Canada will begin prescribing museum visits to their patients. A new collaboration between the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) and Médecins francophones du Canada permits doctors to give their patients free museum admission tickets as a form of treatment for a variety of physical and mental health problems. It is interesting to note that this partnership acknowledges the healing power of art for physical as well as mental health problems. The mental benefits of arts enrichment are frequently cited, especially in terms of reducing loneliness and social isolation. Attending the arts for its physical benefits, while less cited, is growing support. The Journal of Pain recently published an analysis of a decade of data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing suggesting that cultural engagement (going to museums, art galleries, exhibitions, concerts, the theater, or the opera) is as protective as vigorous physical activity against the development of chronic pain among older adults.

Also noteworthy of the Montreal partnership is that the program includes admission for the patient’s family or care partner. This allowance recognizes the reality that a museum visit is a social experience for many individuals. According to the 2015 National Endowment for the Arts study When Going Gets Tough: Barriers and Motivations Affecting Arts Attendance, surveyed U.S. adult respondents included cost (38.3%) and lack of someone with whom to go (21.6%) as prominent barriers to participation in the arts. Although I'm mixing the U.S. and Canada here, the Montreal initiative's inclusion of free museum admission for families and care partners can only increase the likelihood that a patient will “take the medicine.”

Rather ahead of the curve, the Art Institute of Chicago has maintained a full-time staff position dedicated to older adult education for over a quarter century. I am pleased to have held this position for many years following the pioneering achievements of my late predecessor Mickie Silverstein. For the past decade, the museum has partnered with Chicago eldercare organization CJE SeniorLife on Art in the Moment, a museum-based art-therapy program for individuals living with dementia to promote intellectual stimulation, creative expression, social engagement, and personal validation. In recent years this collaboration has extended to the Mesulam Center for Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease of Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. Our cooperation with the Mesulam Center stemmed from our mutual participation in a larger Chicago initiative, the Arts for Brain Health Coalition (AFBHC). Bringing together music, singing, performance, dance, visual, and studio arts, the “Arts for Brain Health Coalition activates collaborations between healthcare and arts providers, designing and presenting programs that use creative engagement to improve the lives of people with memory loss and those who care for them.”

The Art Institute’s participation in AFBHC has been transformative for my practice on a number of levels. Time and time again I come to recognize that any service, resource, accommodation, or experience intended for a specific population, whether with or without a disability, will almost invariably have broader appeal and benefit for the population at large. In my experience, I see this applying to building ramp access, hands-on learning opportunities, arts-based health and wellness programming, and more. This came to a head last year with the inclusion of AFBHC at the Art Institute’s 25th Annual Reflections Festival, a celebration of lifelong learning welcoming approximately 1,000 older adults from the greater Chicagoland area.

On Wednesday, March 25 as part of the LEARN day of presentations during the 2020 Aging in America Conference, I look forward to sharing more about how the Reflections festival has become an inclusively-designed celebration of healthy living and aging through arts and cultural enrichment. I will join an exciting panel of experts to address the topic of Creativity and Purpose: Using the Arts to Reduce Social Isolation in Diverse Older Adults:

Our session will focus on the power of the arts (visual, theater, literary, music, performance) to reduce social isolation and improve the health and well-being of older adults, whether aging healthfully, aging pathologically, or having lifelong disabilities. We will explore some excellent strategies for infusing creative aging in one’s cultural work and highlight the latest breakthrough research on the health and wellbeing impact of the arts with older adults, including a soon-to-be published case study with EngAGE and the Institute for Health & Aging at the University of California San Francisco. I am very excited to be part of this conversation and I hope you can join us at Aging in America on March 25!

Lucas Livingston directs the Art Institute of antiquarian at heart, Lucas received degrees from Notre Dame and the University of Chicago in Ancient Mediterranean Civilization and studied Egyptology at the American University in Cairo. He lectures extensively on aspects of ancient and Asian art and is the creator and host of the Ancient Art Podcast at ancientartpodcast.org. In an effort not to be the first one voted off the island, Lucas also brews beer inspired by historic recipes, narratives, and traditions ... strictly for research, of course. He frequently presents on the history of beer and brewing and serves on the National Advisory Board for the Chicago Brewseum. His published research, articles, conference sessions, and webinars can be found at https://artic.academia.edu/LucasLivingston.

Additional references

Carlson, Mary Baird (1991) Creative Aging: A Meaning-Making Perspective. Norton and Company.

Cohen, Gene (2000) The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life. Harper Collins.