For example, a study in the Gerontological Society of America’s (GSA) Journal of Gerontology by Karen Anderson-Ranberg and colleagues is aptly titled “Dementia is Not Inevitable.” It looked at 276 centenarians (people age 100 or more) living in Denmark. The results of their population-based survey and medical examinations showed 51% had mild to severe dementia; 37% had no signs of dementia; and 12% had diseases that could contribute to a dementia diagnosis.
The researchers concluded, “Dementia is a common, but not inevitable, phenomenon in extremely aged people such as centenarians.”
The good thing is, even when cognitive decline is diagnosed, there are creative ways to help bolster the brain’s functioning and enhance quality of life.
At the recently concluded 21st International Association of Gerontology and Geriatrics (IAGG) World Congress in San Francisco, members and academic researchers from more than 75 different countries gave presentations on the latest findings on aging, an experience that will touch us all sooner or later. A significant number of symposia and workshops were on Alzheimer’s disease and dementia and how to care for our older family members living with these conditions.
World Congress participants learned that, although there is no cure or medication to stop or slow the progress of dementia, one light at the end of the tunnel may be reached through the arts. They saw up close and personal how introducing art, music, theater or dance can change a senior’s perspective on aging.
Carnell Rogers is indeed the perfect poster child for elders positively impacted by the introduction of the arts in their lives. At 101 years old, Rogers revealed that painting and photography has brought tremendous richness to her life.
“I had no idea I had this in me. Learning to paint has kept me interested in the world around me,” mused Rogers at the IAGG Age Stage venue setup to highlight programs helping older adults to age with grace and purpose.
Rogers took up art and photography in recent years and has found her artistic voice. In fact, her artwork, has been featured in group exhibitions at a California gallery. Through the Elders Learning Community, in collaboration with the LifeLong Medical Care in Berkeley, Rogers and other seniors, some with dementia, participate in art therapy that helps stimulate their creativity and build resistance to cognitive decline.
Rogers recounted that when she was told about the art program, she thought they would bring a coloring book and crayons. But, to her surprise she was given water color paints and brushes. She watched the technique of an artist in residence with the program and quickly gained interest.
“It was amazing how I learned to mix the colors. I learned how to color without a coloring book,” she said with delight. “Art has given me something else to think about and look forward to, and it is something different that I haven’t done before.”
Strengthening the argument for arts intervention in eldercare was an IAGG symposium that focused on research by Sherry Dupuis and her co-researchers. Through focus groups, video data and interviews from four research projects that looked at visual arts, theater and clowning. They concluded, “The arts create transformative spaces for relational flourishing and prompt the social change needed to reduce the harm and suffering experienced by older adults living with dementia.”
Engaging elders in what one presenter called “interactive musical adventures” has also proven to be positively therapeutic in helping to maintain mental and social balance. Songwriting Works (SW) is helping lead the charge in battling cognitive and emotional health with interactive songwriting. A winner of the Gilbert Innovations in Alzheimer’s Caregiving Legacy Award, the organization, led by founder/director Judith-Kate Friedman, writes songs in the words and vocal rhythms of the elders it serves.
With its mission to “restore joy, hope, health and community through song,” SW visits nursing homes, assisted living facilities and other communities, and the nonprofit engages older residents to tell their stories, memories and everyday wisdom. Together the musicians and seniors create tunes to go with the lyrics that emerge. Friedman and her team of professional songwriters/singers help give voice to these older residents and the result is improved social interaction, blossoming creativity, and increased brain activity.
Having served more than 3000 participants across the United States and Canada, SW has generated hundreds of original songs, some of which will be featured on a new album, Life’s a Song.
Invaluable to seniors’ wellbeing overall, Theresa Allison, MD noted that SW’s program results are measurable.
“Creating and performing original songs improves quality of life and enables institutionalised elders to remain vibrant and creative”.
Older adult choirs are also an example of how music works to develop sharper focus, creativity, and social connectedness. San Francisco’s Community Music Centre Bayview Older Adult Choir rocked the house at IAGG’s Age Stage with jazz, blues, and gospel songs showing the world that ageing is like a song building to a dramatic crescendo.
Dawn Davis wrote this story with support from the Journalists in Aging Fellows Program of New America Media and The Gerontological Society of America, through a grant from The Silver Century Foundation.