National Assisted Living Week is an annual observance established by the National Center for Assisted Living (NCAL) in order to “recognize the role of assisted living in caring for America’s seniors and individuals with disabilities.” NALW provides an opportunity for care centers to bridge the gap between care centers and their surrounding communities through events and activities.

The 2019 NALW theme is “a spark of creativity.”

In the words of Professor John Keating in the 1989 film, Dead Poets’ Society: “Medicine, law, business, engineering—these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

Okay, so you may or may not feel quite that strongly about the arts and humanities, or perhaps you just don’t consider yourself a creative person, but the truth is that everyone has sparks of creativity inside themselves. We underestimate ourselves all too often. Anybody of any age can release and channel their creative thoughts and ideas, and benefit from doing so.

You don’t need to be a professionally trained artist to reap the positive effects of dabbling in the visual arts and other creative outlets, such as writing, dancing, singing, or playing a musical instrument. Creative expression can prove especially beneficial to seniors’ mental and emotional wellbeing.

However, since creativity can be an asset in all fields and areas of life, including problem-solving and invention, the 2019 theme for NALW is two-fold: “The theme aims to inspire assisted living staff to get creative in order to further person-centered care to residents. Staff at all levels are encouraged to offer ideas that could help improve each resident’s quality of life.”

NALW hopes that care centers across the country will harness their creative powers and provide artistic outlets and activities for their residents and encourage them to explore the arts.

Potential benefits of art therapy/creative projects for seniors:

Memory and cognitive ability  – Producing artistic work stimulates the brain and can help break down some of the mental barriers of memory loss, triggering long-dormant memories and opening up new avenues for therapeutic conversations. Sometimes, artistic residents with dementia cannot recall their loved ones or vast portions of their own lives, but still remember how to paint or draw.

Tim Carpenter, founder of EngAGE, a nonprofit organization that provides seniors with arts and wellness education opportunities, writes: “Americans see getting older as this ending point and decline whereas research on the brain shows the opposite. Your brain increases its ability to make new connections. Our brain continues to grow as we get older, and certain forms of creativity fire neurons in a way that creates connections in the brain.”

Social life and relationship building – Joining an art class or club at a care center or local community center or library can be a great opportunity to meet new people. Bonding over an artistic activity (and appreciating all the unique ways different people can approach a single creative assignment) is an organic way to get to know others and start conversations. Additionally, the arts can provide a new route of communication, which is especially helpful for non-verbal residents and/or residents dealing with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia and cognitive issues.

Mental health boost – Studies show that individuals with mental illnesses like depression are more prone to physical ailments, as mental stress affects the entire body and exacerbates health issues. Working on visual art projects, writing, or other types of creative expression can reduce stress and anxiety by providing an outlet—or at the very least—a distraction. The arts can also help you process your feelings and struggles with grief and trauma, profound experiences where words often fall short.

Purpose – A creative project can give you a specific outlet to channel all your focus into, and become a more direct and tangible sense of purpose.

The possibilities for exploring the arts with seniors are nearly infinite, but here are a few general avenues you can start with:

• Beading
• Karaoke
• Collaging
• Painting (Whether on watercolor paper, canvas, or ceramics)
• Poetry, haiku writing workshop
• Holiday card decorating
• Seasonal wreath making
• Journaling, with or without writing prompts
• Photo frame decorating

seniors enjoy painting together at a table

Have a happy National Assisted Living Week! Remember that everyone possesses a degree of creativity, and that it’s never too late to uncover your potential.