Pacifica Mission Villa seniors, 2017; photography by Frank Anzalone, courtesy of The Walt Disney Family Museum

Background / Creative Arts Healing Initiative

By 2020 there will be 8.7 million veterans over the age of 65. The majority of whom have served in the Vietnam era, and many still suffering the lingering effects of TBI and PTSD, along with ailments that appear later in life such as adult onset diabetes or Alzheimer’s disease.

These challenges require more than the traditional medical model can solve. It requires a multi-layered person-centered approach that augments and enhances the community living centers. The NCCA Creative Arts Healing Initiative at the VA CLC demonstrates ways your CLC might consider ways of expanding programming to honor and serve our veteran community.

How Can the Arts Help?

The National Initiative for Arts & Health in the Military identified several areas where the Arts have demonstrated effectiveness, such as helping to promote resilience, retention and reintegration. Key considerations from the report state:

  • A growing body of evidence indicates that providing veterans with opportunities to express themselves and share their stories can help them cope with PTSD, TBI, and depression.
  • The arts can address one of the reasons a Veteran might avoid seeking treatment. Unlike exposure-based therapies, when using the arts, individuals can experience and/or express their thoughts and feelings without necessarily having to talk about or directly confront the trauma, if they are not ready.
  • Suicide rates are high for Veterans 50 years or older. Arts interventions can be a form of behavioral activation – the systematic scheduling and monitoring of pleasurable or reinforcing activities – which can have significant antidepressant effect.
Launching the Healing Arts Initiative

In 2010 the National Center for Creative Aging (NCCA) in Washington DC and the Community Living Center (CLC) at the DC VAMC developed a strategic plan and then piloted a creativity and health program that brought professional artists into the unit to work with the older Veterans to provide evidence-based arts programming.

Since 2013, the NCCA has been leading the daily project management activities of the Creative Arts Healing Initiative at the Washington DC Veterans Affairs Medical Center (DC VAMC)’s CLC, and implementation and operationalization of the program within the unit. The Creative and Healing Arts Program allows older Veterans the opportunity to heal the mind, body, and spirit through weekly activities include mindful movement classes, music appreciation, and visual arts classes, and staff dance and movement breaks. The program also aligns itself with the DC VAMC’s overarching priorities and Veterans Health Administration’s directives for providing personalized, proactive, patient-driven care to its Veterans.

At the heart of this program lies an understanding of the aging process: moving beyond the “deficit” approach that stresses losses and decline to embrace an “asset” approach that rejoices in the strengths, achievements, and potential of later life—not in spite of aging, but because of aging.

“I loved the way you engaged the veterans and especially how they shared their inner feelings.” – Staff Member from DC VA CLC

Residents report feeling stronger, more flexible and steady on their feet. This is especially true for people who are in for short rehabilitation stays, like Mr. A. He was with the CLC for a few months last fall/winter and came to almost every movement class while he was with there. He wanted to lose weight and have more control of his body. While not strong enough to do the class standing, the seated Mindful Movement class helped him build strength and get him closer to the goal. It was a powerful complement to his physical therapy and most importantly, he really enjoyed it. He started to do parts of the class on his own and even asked for our playlist so that he could use the same music. He said that he could move his upper body more easily and turn his head from side to side which was improving his reaction time and balance.

In Their Words

The Creative and Healing Arts team has forged very special relationships with the DC VAMC CLC residents – and with the staff too. The benefits from this program extend beyond the relationships. Residents and staff express the positive difference they notice, thanks to the movement, music, and open studio sessions led by the team.

Residents report having a stronger appetite and better digestion and elimination. One of the resident artists, age 66, notes, “that having a class that activates his upper body with twisting, bending and reaching helps his digestion.”

Program Expansion

NCCA in partnership with Johnson and Johnson led trainings in VA along the Northeast corridor on how to design and lead arts programs for older adults within CLC’s. Additionally, the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project assisted the NCCA in expanding programming to the Little Rock, AR and Bedford, MA, VA. Dr. Battar, Chief of Geriatrics, Little Rock, VA writes, “Thank you so much. It was beautiful to look at the veterans waking up. I loved the way you engaged the veterans and especially how they shared their inner feelings.”

Learn more about the Healing Arts Program here.


About NCCA

Contact Jennie Smith-Peers, Executive Director
phone: 202-895-9456 | email: jsmith-peers@creativeaging.org | website: www.creativeaging.org