Arts and Older Adults During the Time of COVID-19

By Beth Bienvenu
a screenshot of a Zoom dance class with older adults who are shown practicing hand gestures

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, approximately 28 percent of older adults in the United States, or 13.8 million people, live alone. Even before the pandemic, a 2018 survey from the AARP Foundation and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine showed that 43 percent of adults age 60 and older reported feeling lonely. While not all older adults experience loneliness, according to research compiled by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), there is a risk that the increased isolation imposed by the COVID pandemic can cause or exacerbate cognitive decline, depression, anxiety, and health conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and a weakened immune system.

The good news, however, according to NIA, is that people who engage in “meaningful, productive activities with others tend to live longer, boost their mood, and have a sense of purpose. These activities seem to help maintain their well-being and may improve their cognitive function.” Engaging in the arts is among the meaningful and productive activities that have long been associated with better health outcomes for older adults, as shown by experience and through research. A National Endowment for the Arts-supported study found that arts programs can lead to better health outcomes for older adults, including needing fewer doctor visits and less medication, as well as better mental health and more involvement in overall activities. In addition, the Arts Endowment’s 2014 Health and Retirement Study found that adults engaged in the arts show higher cognitive functioning, lower rates of cognitive decline, lower rates of hypertension, and lower rates of limited physical function.

A more recent study conducted in 2018 by Julene Johnson Ph.D., a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of California at San Francisco, sorted 390 randomly assigned adults age 60 and over from diverse populations into choirs run by the San Francisco Community Music Center (CMC) and compared them with a control group. They found that those who participated in the choirs reported less loneliness and more “interest in life” (i.e., less apathy toward life). 

The San Francisco CMC is continuing to provide music engagement for its members during the pandemic, through YouTube instruction videos and virtual group singing opportunities via live video and telephone. These classes allow participants to engage in much-needed arts programming and social interaction, and they are able to reach other community members who have not participated in the past. 

One of Dr. Johnson’s students, Chinaza Ochi, a second-year medical student at UCSF, is interested in how older adults from diverse backgrounds are managing during the pandemic. She interviewed eight older adults of Black and South Asian backgrounds by telephone and found that they “continued engaging in arts (e.g., music listening, singing, dancing) and reported that this activity provided much needed distraction during difficult times, as well as relaxation and joy. These findings suggest that the arts should be accessible to older adults during a public health crisis to help maintain quality of life.” 

Arts for the Aging (AFTA), an Arts Endowment grantee based in Rockville, Maryland, is another example of an organization finding ways to address isolation in the older population. The organization’s mission is “to engage older adults and care partners in health improvement and life enhancement through regular participation in the multi-disciplinary arts.” They typically work in nearly 50 community or residential care settings throughout the Washington, DC area, including community centers, senior centers, adult care centers, assisted living communities, and memory cafés, as well as museums and other cultural institutions. Working with 25 teaching artists, each year they typically serve around 1,200 older adults and just over 100 professional or family caregivers, delivering over 600 programs to provide social interaction, arts engagement, and arts learning. 

According to AFTA’s Director and CEO Janine Tursini, once pandemic restrictions were in place, her team took some time to regroup and determine how to adapt both their residential and community-based programming to best serve their participants, and in mid-May they ran their first virtual program using video. They hired a new program director, Sarah House, who has worked since then to expand the program to include both live, Zoom-based and pre-recorded video instruction. They are finding ways to include multiple art forms in the video sessions, combining live music with dance instruction or a history lesson on the art form, for example, to create a richer learning experience for participants.  

House said that they are continually evolving their process, finding more ways to better reach the people in the residential facilities and those without computers. They use a hybrid approach to live classes in which some participants connect via Zoom and others by telephone, and they adapt workshops to be more accessible by ensuring that instructors fully describe each step of a given project. The organization also provides “heART Kits” to people in the residential facilities, which contain all of the arts supplies and instructions needed to participate in the visual art projects.

In addition, AFTA’s improvisational dance company, Quicksilver Senior Improv Dance Company, which had been providing social engagement through dance movement at residential and community facilities prior to the pandemic, quickly shifted to an online platform after in-person programs shut down. They currently engage with their dancers over Zoom, and it has provided a lifeline for the dancers, fostering social engagement, artistry, and much-needed physical activity. Said Quicksilver member Jenean McKay, “Even for myself, as I've experienced visual and balance issues, I find that I am able to dance easily without a cane. Remarkable.”

We are all looking for silver linings during this pandemic, and for Arts for the Aging, their silver lining has been in the increased interaction and collaboration between its teaching artists. They report that they are more connected with each other because, rather than working independently and traveling from facility to facility, they are now working collaboratively to develop and implement these new approaches. Th instructors use virtual platforms to meet regularly, test new learning techniques with each other, collaborate on video production, and share feedback. They are excited about working together and inspiring each other, which has helped build morale among the instructors during an otherwise trying time. Due to the success of these virtual programs, AFTA envisions including virtual opportunities alongside in-person programming once they are able to meet again in person. This will help build the communities and reach a wider audience.

“It’s really interesting to interact with some of the participants online after having them in live workshops,” said AFTA teaching artist Peter Burroughs. “In most participants their personality and level of participation was similar or predictable, but some participants really seem to shine in this new way of meeting virtually. Being more engaged and expressing more.” 

While there are many ways that older adults can stay engaged and connected during the COVID-19 pandemic, the arts are particularly well suited for this purpose as vehicles for providing mental stimulation, physical activity, social engagement, and the pure joy of artmaking with others. By helping seniors of all ages and abilities stay active and connected through virtual platforms, telephone connections, and art kits, arts programs can help ward off the negative health effects of isolation through meaningful arts learning and engagement. 

Beth Bienvenu is the National Endowment for the Arts Director of Accessibility.