Beyond Knitting Circles

By Catherine DiGiacomo

June 15, 2015 5 min read

Mothballs, black licorice and the sweetest, most flowery perfume imaginable. That's what Grandma's senior living home smelled like. I still smell this unique combination any time I think of my great-grandmother, who I was blessed to know for 13 years. I would beg Mom to let me sleep over at her senior home, the setting for most of my fondest childhood memories: pushing the elevator button, playing chef in her little kitchen and -- our favorite -- going to the arts and crafts sale. Each weekend, Grandma took me to the arts and crafts boutique, where we would peruse the tables of trinkets and doilies created by her neighbors. She socialized with friends and often complimented their work as I gathered pretty items into my little arms. The whole experience was fun for me -- but it was more than that for Grandma.

According to a study published in the Journal of Aging Studies, study participants, aged 60 to 93, identified six features of successful aging: a sense of purpose, interactions with others, personal growth, self-acceptance, autonomy and health. As stated in a Holiday Retirement Community blog post, "Creative activities, such as writing, painting or knitting, encourage a sense of competence, purpose and growth -- all of which contribute to aging well." Arts and crafts play a vital role in aging healthfully by contributing positively to each of those six features.

--A sense of purpose. Sage Minder, an online resource dedicated to supporting caregivers, explains that it's important for senior citizens to feel they are contributing to something larger than themselves: "Even just feeling useful can be a boost to an elderly person who is feeling isolated or depressed." Organizing an arts and crafts sale is a perfect way to get members of an assisted or independent living home involved in their community. Assigning member volunteers to various roles gets them out of their apartment and gives them responsibility.

--Interactions with others. Sometimes the idea of meeting new people and adapting to a new lifestyle can be daunting, but arts and crafts programs help to bring the timid out of their shells. As Terry Hurley explains on the LoveToKnow senior lifestyle blog, "for seniors living in nursing homes, assisted living facilities or who are members of senior citizen centers, making crafts brings people together. It helps them to have a sense of belonging and develop friendships."

--Personal growth. To be an artist, you must create something out of nothing. You have to problem solve and practice seeing your work through someone else's eyes. Mastering these skills and sharing handmade gifts with friends and family helps build self-esteem and pride.

--Self-acceptance. The more a person feels accepted in a community the more he will begin to accept himself. Health issues can make a person feel disadvantaged, and they may be tempted to sit out during certain activities. However, meeting others who share those same physical challenges will create bonds of trust and acceptance -- and even friendships. Plus, there are plenty of art projects specifically designed for those who suffer from health issues.

--Autonomy. Many seniors who need living assistance feel a loss of control over their lives. It's hard to give up your driver's license or have someone routinely check on you. Those who have disabilities or need a little extra help doing daily tasks may find a sense of autonomy through art. For someone who has lost use of her legs, learning a new skill she can do with her hands, such as pottery or painting, can be extremely rewarding. In the artist's seat, seniors can regain control over their projects.

--Health. There are several ways art can help you keep your wits about you as you age. As Hurley mentions, aside from the physical exercise of molding, sculpting, painting, etc., engaging with art also keeps your mind stimulated and helps prevent emotional health illnesses. According to Michael Friedman, adjunct associate professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work, "art can be a healing force for people with mental disorders, including people with dementia, and art can contribute to psychological well-being of people regardless of whether they have a mental disorder or not."

I'm grateful I had a grandmother who took me to the arts and crafts sales at her senior living home. Not only did she introduce me to art, but also she showed me how valuable the practice of art can be in someone's life -- especially for those who are retired, elderly or disabled. Even if you are not an artist, incorporate art into your life in some way. It's good for you.

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