By Caroline Chase, Grace Cottage Behavioral Health Specialist
Throughout my life, I remember hearing members of the “older generation” saying “aging is not for sissies.” As a child, this never “struck a chord,” probably because I had a hard time coming to the realization that someday I, too, would reach, what seemed at the time, the dreaded “older generation.” Yet, here I am now, heading into the final chapters of my life, much more aware of the rewards and liabilities of aging.
I am now able to observe, both in myself and in the elderly population with whom I work as a psychotherapist, the attributes and qualities that contribute to healthy aging. While aging can bring with it the emotional freedom of being able to sort out one’s priorities, and hopefully, learning not to “sweat the small stuff,” aging can also bring with it complex and painful emotions that are often not recognized by society.
Experiencing the loss of a loved one or friend can be particularly difficult, and of course, as we age, the chances increase that we will experience multiple losses.
Then, there is the loss of dreams, and coming to terms with the decisions and choices we made when we were younger. It may be difficult to reconcile these within us when we get older.
The loss of our physical selves is also problematic, watching as all kinds of “aches and pains” suddenly come careening out of the woodwork when we least expect them. There are many things we can do to stay healthier as we age, including diet and exercise, but the thing that I will concentrate on in this article is creativity.
While some of us may have a natural desire to express our creative sides through painting, sculpture or music, making a conscious effort to produce art, regardless of the medium, has been shown to actually change the connections between brain regions, which may help one to become more resilient in the face of stress and less prone to worry and anxiety. Moreover, creativity has been shown to improve wellbeing and to lower depression, especially in those who have an illness.
It turns out, according to a recent study in the Journal of Aging and Health, that creativity is actually a key contributor to longevity. Not only that, a report on the two-year “Creativity and Aging” study (2001-03) stated that participants in the study’s weekly art program had “better health, fewer doctor visits, and less medication usage; more positive responses on the mental health measures; [and] more involvement in overall activities. … These results point to powerful positive intervention effects of these community-based art programs. … true health promotion and disease prevention effects…. they reveal a positive impact on maintaining independence and on reducing dependency.”
In another study, women who had been diagnosed with cancer completed an eight-week mindfulness class based on art therapy intervention, which included mindfulness training as well as art projects. Compared to those who did not participate in the intervention, the participants had better mental health, lower levels of anxiety, and fewer symptoms of depression. It turns out that creative people often see stressors as challenges to overcome, rather than obstacles that can’t be overcome.
Another benefit of creativity in aging is that it allows one to “forget self” and to live in the present moment, rather than focusing on the past or the future. It is not surprising that coloring books for adults have suddenly become very popular as a way to decrease symptoms of anxiety and stress.
In summary, creativity can help lower stress levels, reduce depression, help people cope with chronic illnesses, allow us to better understand our emotions, and help us to be truly present in the moment. Taking the time to revisit one of the activities you participated in as a child, or finding something new, can actually improve your health and wellbeing.
Thankfully, we’re never too old to find something that brings us joy, something creative that makes our hearts sing.
Caroline Chase, M.S., LMHC, is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor who lives in Massachusetts. She is currently working as the Behavioral Health Specialist for the Community Health Team at Grace Cottage Family Health in Townshend, Vermont.