Research: Art activities preserve health, heritage for ethnic elders

Photo: Marlene Herrera holds up a saddle blanket woven by her great aunt. (Colleen Keane/Navajo Times)

Photo: Marlene Herrera holds up a saddle blanket woven by her great aunt. (Colleen Keane/Navajo Times)

Colleen Keane | Navajo Times / New America Media 

ALAMO, N.M. — Carefully dragging out a large, clear plastic container from her bedroom closet, Marlene Herrera, a member of the Alamo Navajo community said, “I’m glad I saved these.” 

Opening the lid, she pulls out a red, brown and black saddle blanket her great aunt Minnie Martine weaved. Then, she pulls out several her mother, Isabelle Pino-Thomas made.

Altogether, there are 12 weavings mostly of the distinctive and colorful eye-dazzler design.

Pino-Thomas, 78, grew up in Alamo, a satellite community of the Navajo Nation located about 200 miles from Window Rock, Ariz., the capital of the Navajo Nation.

From Albuquerque, Alamo is a two-hour drive southwest through Socorro then to Magdalena. From there, it’s another 28 miles north on a road that winds uphill into high desert canyons, hills and mountains.

Looking closer at the rugs and blankets, Herrera wonders how she can help her mother document and archive her work, which she said is spread across the country in different museums, some she knows about. But, there could be others.

At the same time, Herrera wants to do all she can to help her mother maintain good health as she gets older. Herrera is not alone in these concerns.

Unarchived Work

“Ninety-five percent of older artists don’t archive their work,” said Joan Jeffri, who directs the Research Center for the Arts and Culture at the National Center for Creative Aging, in Washington, D.C. She’s also the director of Art Cart, an intergenerational project that partners older artists with students who help them document and archive their lifelong art work.

To determine the health impact, Jeffri conducted research study through Columbia University, where she taught for 22 years. She presented her preliminary data at the 66th Gerontological Society of America (GSA) Annual Scientific Meeting held in New Orleans in November.

Jeffri told a group of about 20 people who attended one of her sessions that the Art Cart experiment included 35 white, Hispanic and African American artists ages 62 and older, who make their livings as artists primarily in New York City and Washington, D.C.

She said one of the artists, age 92, had 2,500 paintings unrolled and unsigned before the project started.

Although her final results are pending, Jeffri said preliminary data showed that Art Cart artists did significantly better in at least one physical activity compared to a control group in the study of seniors not involved in art activities.

“Older adults can still be productive and with meaningful activities; they will live longer,” Jeffri said.

Art and Healthy Aging

Jeffi’s scientific inquiry was one of several at the conference that addressed the impact of art-related activities on healthy aging.

Doctoral student Crystal Bennett of the University of Florida, Gainesville, said she received inspiration from a Creek Indian traditional dance for her research.

“Every Thanksgiving, we have a tradition in my family to go to a small town on the Creek Indian reservation. As I watched the tribal dancers and saw older Native Americans dance nonstop for about an hour, I thought dance really has some value,” she said.

From those experiences, she designed and conducted a pilot project to see if line dancing–country and western style group dance that does not call for a partner–is a feasible intervention to improve the overall health and wellbeing of elders.

Bennett, who presented her results in a poster session at the conference, explained, “I looked at the effects of eight weeks of line dancing and found that the dance group [in comparison to the control group that did not dance] had better physical health and reported improved social functioning,” she said.

According to Bennett, the oldest student who participated was 87.

Nina Kraus, who received GSA’s 2013 Gene D. Cohen Research Award, which recognizes research on creativity and aging, studies the influence of musical experience on older adults.

Kraus, a professor of neurobiology and physiology at Northwestern University, in Chicago, found that people who play musical instruments their entire lives hear better when they are older compared to people who have not played musical instruments.

“Healthy aging begins in childhood. Playing music is the anti-aging lifelong experience,” she said.

Secrets of a Long Life

In a conference session titled “Secrets of a Long Life,” investigators said they asked Japanese and white elders questions about preparing taxes, balancing checkbooks and talking in public to determine how engaged they were in everyday living.

Research questions like these may be relevant to Native Americans, but scientists also need to be aware of cultural considerations, Jeffrey Proulx said.

A member of the Mohawk Nation and a doctoral student at Oregon State University, Proulx noted, “Native Americans may have different things that are important to them or make them feel stronger inside.”

Bradley Wilcox, research director at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, who studies life spans of Hawaiian centenarians—those who have lived to 100 or more–pointed to indigenous cultural beliefs and values.

He mentioned that one tradition in Okinawa, known for it’s high proportion of centenarians, is called bashofu, or banana-leaf weaving. He said that bashofu weavers have been found to be healthy agers with less dementia and a passion to go on.

“Bashofu weavers appreciate the [banana] plant from the time it’s a seed to the time it gives its life to the fiber,” Wilcox said, adding, “They can keep up their work, because they have done it for years.”

Colleen Keane wrote this article for the Navajo Times with support from a MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a program of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America. 

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