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Interview: Artful Aging


Creativity often blossoms in later years.

In a new study, over-80s say participation in art and crafts adds zest to life and increases social visibility.

Lead author Jeannine Liddle conducted the research as part of her doctoral studies at the research centre for gender, health and ageing, school of medicine and public health at the University of Newcastle in Callaghan, Australia.

The study drew data from 114 women enrolled in the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health. In addition, data was based on in-depth interviews with 23 women.

Study participants came from across Australia. Their ages ranged between 80 and 88 years.

The findings appeared online in the Journal of Aging Studies (December 2013).

To learn more, AHB caught up with Dr. Liddle in Callaghan, Australia.

Ruth Dempsey: Meeting these women was such a pleasure. What were some of their interests?

Jeannine Liddle: The women in the study had a wide range of interests.

Many were involved in textile crafts such as knitting, crochet, tapestry, spinning and weaving as well as different styles of embroidery and quilting.

Others enjoyed painting, pottery, card or jewellery making, as well as photography. Really, the list of arts and crafts was virtually endless: lead lighting, mosaic, hat making, wood carving, making boxes, dolls or soft toys, basket making and so on.

In fact, the women didn’t necessarily specialize in any one thing. They liked many different activities.

RD: Did they love the arts from early on?

JL: In my interviews, I was able to delve into how they first got started and most had an interest from childhood.

The women talked about family members – mothers, grandmothers, aunts or sisters – who sparked their interest, and were often seen as role models.

Some of the women were able to maintain a continuous interest in an art or craft over a lifetime. The majority did not.

RD: The study found engaging in the arts enlarged women’s emotional repertoire. Can you give me an example?

JL: The women experienced feelings of joy, satisfaction, contentment, excitement and pleasure, as well as peace, love, frustration, irritation, impatience . . .

It can take quite a while to produce something like a tapestry from start to finish, and the women could feel a range of emotions throughout the process. One women said that experiencing these different emotions relieved the boredom.

Another used her work as therapy:

[Weaving] takes my mind off my problems. At the moment I’ve got a husband who’s in a dementia ward, and sometimes I get very down thinking about him. When I get a bit miserable I go to my loom and do a bit of weaving and that takes my mind off that. I get the satisfaction of looking at something that’s been made, and I get the satisfaction of giving it to people. It is good therapy.

And, of course, the women were engaged cognitively too: planning, counting, measuring, evaluating and problem-solving. These are all cognitive processes.

In other words, participation in art and crafts is a complex and dynamic activity.

RD: In the article, you write about a "control continuum?" Can you explain?

JL: A sense of being in control has been shown over and over in the research to be important for people’s well-being.

As a concept, control tends to be discussed as a dichotomy – people feel in control or they don’t. I think in the context of participating in arts and crafts, control works more on a continuum. The need for it varies according to particular circumstances.

Some of the most successful art and craft making from the women’s perspective came out of happy accidents – when they let go, took risks and let things happen.

In particular, I remember one woman explain how important it was in spinning to not force the wool, not try to control the material or else it would never work.

RD: What role did communities play?

JL: Communities are really important.

Local organizations contributed to the women’s development as art and craft makers by:

  • providing opportunities for education and training
  • facilitating access to materials and equipment
  • sponsoring competitions
  • offering venues for activities and exhibitions, and
  • providing markets for products.

The women were recognized in their local communities for their artistic abilities. They were also lauded for their work as teachers and mentors and for supporting various charities.

RD: What can we learn from these women about artful aging?

JL: What impressed me was the women’s attitude to life.

They were extraordinarily resilient and positive. Many faced significant challenges in terms of their own health with the likely need for additional care or change in housing.

Some coped with the loss of a partner, family or friends.

Yet, as art and craft practitioners they were able to enjoy the moment, remain open to possibilities and make new friends.

Intellectually, they found pleasure in learning. They were interested in attending courses, exploring new knowledge and learning new skills.

They had a future and they were planning for that future.

I found all of that really inspiring.