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Creative Aging and Social Prescribing

Category: Museums and Aging
An old corner pharmacy that says "prescriptions" on the sign.
One growing practice that relates to creative aging is "social prescribing," wherein medical professionals prescribe cultural outings for their demonstrated effect on health. Photo by Nicole Y-C on Unsplash.

“You’re doing what?!” This is often the response one gets when they say they are involved in the field of creative aging. I am asked it a lot, from people who want to know what on earth “creative aging” even is. When I begin to describe it to them, they often respond with vague smiles. It somehow elicits that quirky response. Perhaps it’s because it is still a relatively new field, or because we still await a better term to describe this remarkable subject that has enjoyed an explosion of interest as we come to live longer and, hopefully, healthier lives. I am not here to determine the reasons, but I sure would like to land upon a better description.

Creative aging is, at its most basic root, the continual awakening of curiosity, curiosity that leads to purposeful living and (it’s a fact) longer lives. It encourages community interaction, engenders the mastery of skills heretofore only dreamed of by those who have been busy pursuing a career, and provides a crucial context for active older adults who now have, through the benefit of time, both experience and, hopefully, wisdom. In short, it’s BIG! With so many thousands of people becoming senior citizens daily, it’s no wonder that creative aging has caught the attention of many fields, ranging from healthcare to art, and from higher education to museums. We all have an opportunity to both benefit from and contribute to the burgeoning field, and it is our hope to enthuse the museum field during the two-year period of the Aroha partnership.

Given the relative newness of the creative aging field, there are other terms that might deserve some explanation, ones that describe allied aspects of the creative aging movement. One such term is “social prescription,” which has gained a great deal of traction in both the UK and Canada. Basically, social prescription is the practice of prescribing a museum (or park, etc.) visit for health reasons. Why? Because science now knows that there are physiological benefits derived from encounters with art, culture, and nature.

As one medical field representative leading a social prescription effort explains, “museum visits have been shown to increase levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter colloquially known as the ‘happy chemical’ due to its mood-boosting properties.” This boost “is similar to that offered by exercise, making museum prescriptions ideal for the elderly and individuals experiencing chronic pain that prevents them from regularly engaging in physical activity.”

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I invite you to follow the link above and think about the implications of social prescribing at your museum. These findings represent important proof of the value of museum visits, and at the very least can be added to our quiver of convincements as we seek financial support. It wasn’t all that long ago that it was hard to provide tangible proof behind the worth of a museum visit, but today we have this evidence and ever-increasing numbers of surveys that suggest life can change for the better as a result of such cultural interactions. And, as stewards of educational institutions, we know that the very definition of “education” hangs on life and behavior changing in some positive way.

Museums assist with mental and physiological health through the awakening of curiosity, one’s informal interactions with community, and the sense of context and grounding they provide their visitors. Social prescribing is based on proof of this, and we can assume that the field of medicine would not be offering it otherwise. Social prescribing finds its own home in the field of “creative aging,” and as it matures, we can look forward to much more tangible evidence to prove its effect on our health.

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