Group photo of participants, front row seated

Mini-Conference on Creativity and Aging in America participants.

On May 18-19, 2005, the National Endowment for the Arts, the AARP, National Center for Creative Aging and the International Music Products Association sponsored an officially designated Mini-conference of the 2005 White House Conference on Aging (WHCoA) on “Creativity and Aging in America.” Convened at the Arts Endowment in Washington, DC, its primary purpose was to develop recommendations for the 2005 WHCoA about the importance and value of professional arts programming for, by and with older Americans as a quality of life issue. A distinguished group of forty-four leaders in the fields of aging, arts, education, philanthropy, government and research came together to identify and develop recommendations that focus on lifelong learning and building community through the arts, designing for the lifespan and the arts in healthcare.


The White House Conference on Aging is legislated to convene once a decade to make aging policy recommendations to the President and Congress, and to assist the public and private sectors in promoting dignity, health, independence and economic security of current and future generations of older persons. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, “The Baby Boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) will start turning 65 in 2011, and the number of older people will increase dramatically during the 2010-2030 period. The older population in 2030 is projected to be twice as large as their counterparts in 2000, growing from 35 million to 71.5 million and representing nearly 20 percent of the total U.S. population.” Scheduled for December 11-14, the conference outcomes will guide national aging policy over the next decade through 2015. Issues to be considered include:

Planning Along the Lifespan:  Public and private financing of services and benefits for current and future older Americans; increased personal savings and investments for retirement; continuing care giving responsibilities; and long-term care insurance (e.g. tax incentives).
Workplace of the Future: Flexible work arrangements, re-employment and maximum use of technology.
Our Community:   Housing, transportation, access to supportive services and livable communities.
Health and Long-term Living: Health promotion and disease prevention; transition from a disease care system to a health care system; chronic disease management; chronic and acute disease research; use of technology in healthcare delivery and access; focus on nutrition needs and education; and home care and institutional care.
Social Engagement: Community service and volunteerism, leisure activities and lifelong learning.
Marketplace: Responses to consumer needs and demands: product development (consumer products, consumable supplies and services).

During the past year many private and public sector organizations convened meetings designed specifically to develop recommendations around these issues for the 2005 WHCoA. Out of what is anticipated to be approximately 1500 recommendations, the WHCoA’s Policy Committee will refer only 100 to conference delegates who will select approximately 50 for their final report to the White House.

Purpose and Remarks

Paula Terry, Director of the Endowment’s AccessAbility Office, greeted participants and introduced Senior Deputy Chairman Eileen Mason. Mason thanked participants for their time, dedication and interest in the arts and older adults. She noted that discussions would focus on “what has gone before in terms of aging and the arts; what can be done; and what needs to be done.” She acknowledged the AARP, National Center for Creative Aging and the International Music Products Association for their support of the conference, and recognized Steering Committee members: Michael Patterson, AARP; Barbara Gill, Dana Foundation; Mary Luehrsen, International Foundation for Music Research; Pat Williams, Americans for the Arts; Andrea Sherman, Consortium of New York Geriatric Education Centers; and Susan Perlstein, National Center for Creative Aging.

Mason then highlighted the groundbreaking research, “Creativity and Aging: The Impact of Professionally Conducted Cultural Programs on Older Adults,” conducted by Dr. Gene Cohen of George Washington University. She explained that the preliminary results from the three sites—Elders Share the Arts in Brooklyn, NY, Center for Elders and Youth in the Arts in San Francisco, CA, and the Levine School of Music in Washington, DC—reveal strikingly positive differences in the social and physical health of older adults in the intervention group, as compared to those in the control group. Mason thanked the funders of this research: Center for Mental Health Services, SAMHSA, DHHS; National Institute of Mental Health, NIH; the AARP; Stella and Charles Guttman Foundation; and the International Foundation for Music Research. The Arts Endowment initiated the study and serves as the lead sponsor.

Susan Perlstein, Founder and Executive Director of the National Center for Creative Aging and Elders Share the Arts, also welcomed participants, and shared her excitement about this conference. Noting that her national organization was not in existence when the White House last convened a conference on aging, she reflected that this field has “come a long way.” In the last ten years, Perlstein added, “we’ve heard about productive aging, successful aging, healthy aging and civic engagement. And this indicates that we’re moving from a deficit approach—where older people are seen primarily as diseases in need of medical attention—to an asset or strength-based approach that recognizes what older people can bring to quality of life both for themselves and their communities.”

Perlstein reviewed the history of the Older Americans Act as follows:

  • In 1961, the White House organized the first conference on aging. That conference set the stage for Medicare, Medicaid and the Older Americans Act of 1965. The National Endowment on the Arts did not exist at that time.
  • In 1971, the Older Americans Act was reauthorized and new recommendations were adopted, but quality of life and the arts were not on the agenda.
  • To work toward including the arts in the recommendations of the 1981 WHCoA, the Arts Endowment developed an interagency partnership to sponsor a mini-conference on Arts and Aging that was held in 1981. The proceedings passionately articulated the importance of the arts in the lives of older Americans:

“The creation, understanding and transmission of art and knowledge make life more than a matter of physical survival—in Yeats’ words ‘make life more than a long preparation for something that never happens’. The arts enrich lives…It must be national policy to recognize and support the rights of older people to discover fulfillment through the arts and to insure that they, no less than any other age group, be provided with opportunities for sharing, both as givers and as receivers….”

As a result, the arts and humanities were included in the 1981 WHCoA’s agenda for the first time ever. Still, arts recommendations were not included in the reauthorization of the Older Americans Act.

l    In 1995, the Arts Endowment worked with the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Administration on Aging to sponsor a May 10-11, 1995, WHCoA mini-conference on “The Arts, the Humanities and Older Americans” that positioned the arts as a quality of life issue. Jane Alexander was the first Endowment Chair ever invited to a WHCoA, where she addressed 2,600 delegates on May 4, 1995, and the arts were included in several WHCoA’s resolutions; however, recognition of the arts as a quality of life issue was quite limited.

  • To date, the Older Americans Act does not embrace the arts directly. It does not yet recognize the vital link between the arts, health and quality of life nor does it acknowledge that the 36 million Americans who are now 65 years and older can make important cultural contributions as artists, patrons, creators, scholars, teachers, students, administrators and volunteers.

Perlstein added that participants at the 1981 and 1995 min-conferences articulated clearly and completely the many benefits of the arts to older Americans. For the mini-conference today and tomorrow, she expressed her hope that an outcome will be to mobilize national partners to support the inclusion of the arts in the reauthorization of the Older Americans Act. This year’s WHCoA, Perlstein explained, “comes at a time when the United States stands on the brink of an ‘aging revolution’—the impact of which we are just beginning to experience. Yet despite this demographic explosion, American society still undervalues and underserves its older citizens. Older people have limited access to our cultural institutions. They suffer a paucity of avenues for artistic exploration and creative self-expression. It is this climate of unprecedented challenge and opportunity that underscores the importance of today’s ‘Creativity and Aging’ conference.”

Rick Moody, Director of Academic Affairs at AARP, endorsed Perlstein’s remarks, and commented, “The things that we overlook like creativity in the last stage of life or the power of reminiscence, when we finally get around to paying attention to them turn out to have extraordinary power. As the Bible says, ‘the stone that builders rejected has become the foundation of the cathedral’.” He invoked the memory of Arthur Fleming, who led the Department of Health, Education and Welfare during the Eisenhower administration and created what became the federal Office on Aging. "Older persons need a dream, not just a memory," Fleming said. Moody asked conference participants to focus over the next two days on the future.

Dana Gioia, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, welcomed participants and thanked the representatives of the WHCoA Policy Committee, Bob Blancato and Gail Gibson-Hunt, for participating in the conference. He expressed his concern with the increasing separation of the arts from human life:

“What we’ve done is we’ve acquired a kind of wonderful scholarship, professional competence, powerful institutions, archives and research facilities, but we’ve done this at what I think is an impossible cost. We’ve separated the arts from the human purposes for which they were created. Arts exist as part of human culture…. Universally, they are integrated in different ways in different societies…. You’ll see them integrated in daily life, into rituals and into the whole life process. When you take it out of the life and try to replace it with commercial entertainment or video games, you have impoverished the arts and you have impoverished the culture. You have diminished the lives of people. What we are trying to do, and this is really the necessary work of the 21st century, is to reconnect what the arts are to the lives of the people.”

Gioia also described art a catalyst for bringing together disparate groups within communities; for example, Operation Homecoming, an Arts Endowment initiative in which some of America's most distinguished writers are conducting workshops at military installations and are contributing educational resources to help the troops and their families share their stories. In addition, he noted that the arts have been a part of healing throughout history and are, today, integrated in many cultures around the world. Older adults benefit not only from arts and healing, but also from arts and learning; learning does not stop at age 18:

“There is something wrong with a society that believes you should be in an education system until you are 18 or 21, and you stop learning. You stop reading…. What we are trying to do is to find a way of making arts—of making learning—a lifelong process. The human needs, the personal needs and the communal needs that you bring at each stage of your life somehow have arts as one of the necessary human languages…. There are some truths that can only be told to us as stories, can only be felt as songs, can only be seen and experienced as dances or as representations of images. To take all of that language and integrate it in. “