By Elizabeth Orens
Encouraging the spiritual and physical welfare of older adults is a ministry that the Church has too often neglected. But the possibilities are endless, for when art, worship, and friendship are united, the lives of older adults are transformed. Their health improves and their creative powers are unleashed.
Six years ago, I arranged for a small group of Christian artists (the Sacred Arts Group) to meet monthly with older adults at St. Mary’s Court, a residence for low-income seniors in Washington, D.C. The program began with a Eucharist in a basement living room. Afterward, everyone gathered for food, conversation, and a poetry circle. Joy Kraus, a gifted local poet, would read from her work and personal stories flowed in response. In the spring, the visiting artists and artists living at St. Mary’s Court shared their talents in an arts program for the residents. Some parishioners from All Souls Episcopal Church participate in this mission as well. As an assisting priest at All Souls, the convener of the Sacred Arts Group, and the celebrant at the monthly masses at St. Mary’s Court, I have been engaged in all three communities.
What can we learn from ministries such as this, and how can the science of aging inform our efforts?
Creativity and Aging
The scientific evidence is clear. Offering opportunities for older adults to engage with the arts and to celebrate their talents enhances their happiness, their physical vitality, and their sense of identity and purpose. Many older adults struggling with isolation, loneliness, prejudice, and physical limitations discover that sustained engagement with the arts brings emotional satisfaction as well as improved health.
In The Mature Mind, Gene Cohen, a pioneer researcher in the field of geriatric psychiatry, describes the pride and confidence older adults enjoy as they gain mastery and control over a given medium. It is not surprising that after the spring arts program at St. Mary’s Court, one of the residents, a painter who was exhibiting her work for the first time, remarked with delight: “Everyone has an artist within. It’s important to open yourself to the gifts given you. Sometimes you need a nudge.”
Cohen conducted a formidable national study (2001) of the effects of community-based art programs on the health of older adults. The two-year study took place in three different cities with 350 elders (age 65 to 103). The results of the study exceeded Cohen’s expectations. In comparison to the control group, those who participated in the arts program experienced an “increase in overall health,” a “decline in doctor visits,” a “decline in medication usage,” a “positive impact on morale,” and an “increase in social activities” (Creativity and Aging Study, 2006).
Cohen’s research complements that of other neuroscientists — Andrew Newberg, Mark Waldman, Michael Merzenich, and others — who emphasize the brain’s neuroplasticity; (its flexibility and malleability). As the psychiatrist Doidge points out, the brain has all the elasticity it needs to change someone’s life for the better, as long as the person is open to exercising it. Such research offers encouragement to our ministry at St. Mary’s Court.
Beauty and Reformation
But the inspiration for our ministry does not rest on neuroscience alone. At its heart was our belief in the transformative power of beauty, friendship, and prayer. This transformative power was confirmed as we watched it bring purpose, inspiration, and joy into the lives of those who participated in our program.
One of the painters at St. Mary’s Court who exhibited her work to an Arts Evening put it this way: “I felt that all the performers were seeking unity and beauty. I was impressed with everyone’s inner search for beauty.” Her response captured the essence of the evening: that artists from all walks of life can bring people together through the gift of words, music, dance, and the visual arts. She had come to realize that the power of art can bring inspiration, healing, and wonder to a world too often bereft of imagination.
Inspired by this same conviction, the Sacred Arts Group meets bimonthly for worship, performance, and discussion. Our mission has been particularly influenced by Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love by Rowan Williams. He argues that the artist provides a unique perception of the world — one that moves beyond determinism to envision a world of complexity, imagination, and mystery. The artist enters into a creative process of reformation —a reshaping — of what is known.
At our Arts Evening, a dancer from St. Mary’s Court offered an interpretive dance of the Prayer of St. Francis that was an embodied reformation of a beloved prayer. As Gay Hanna, a member of the Sacred Arts Group and former executive director of the National Center for Creative Aging, said: “Aging helps creativity to flower. Aging and creativity help to reposition ourselves.” Beauty conveyed redemptive possibilities of hope and healing to an aging community. And so did friendship.
The members of the Sacred Arts Group found redemptive possibilities for themselves as they gathered in friendship for meals, worship, and performance in each other’s homes. This bond of friendship was one that members felt called to offer to the people of St. Mary’s Court. One member spoke about the relationship we built this way: “The hospitality we knew as a Sacred Arts Group was now being experienced at St. Mary’s Court. So, home to home; hospitality to hospitality.”
The group found guidance for this aspect of its ministry in Aelred’s Spiritual Friendship (1167). The words Aelred uses to describe friendship — honor, charm, truth, joy, sweetness, good will, affection, and action — served as touchstones for the group’s outreach. In The Gift of Years, Benedictine nun Joan Chittister advises older adults to take courage to widen their social circles in order to gain or regain connection and purpose. Members of the Sacred Arts Group felt called to this same vision. Through “affection and action,” we encouraged the elders to engage with us and their community through worship, fellowship, and the arts.
Worship, the Arts, and Faith
The setting for worship at St. Mary’s Court was a living room space, not a chapel. But when the Eucharist was celebrated the room was adorned with icons, art, and candles. And in this small multiracial and multinational congregation of Americans, Mexicans, Nigerians, Syrians, and Chinese, the beauty of holiness was present in faith, sacrament, and the bond of peace.
The Eucharist was the foundation for all that followed. The proclamation of the Word with its message of renewal, healing, and hope inspired the fellowship, poetry circle, and discussion. In this simple gathering, God’s splendor broke forth from a basement room at St. Mary’s Court. In a number of revelatory ways, faith and art converged to encourage healing and new awakenings. “God is the Creator,” one resident said. “God made us in his image; we do beautiful things as creative people ourselves; we copy his creativity.”
The Sacred Arts Group believes that faith, friendship, and the arts to elders are especially important now during our country’s pandemic. For those who have suffered isolation, illness, and loss, a ministry of hope and healing is imperative. A holistic mission such as ours has the creative potential of bringing health, inspiration, and longevity to older adults. Such a bond of faith and friendship is one of the beatitudes within God’s kingdom.
The Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Orens is a priest associate at All Souls,’ Washington, D.C.