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Old Masters

New Exhibit Pairs Older Artists with Medical Students to Break Down Stereotypes about Aging

By Jill Yesko | Posted 10/22/2003

Dr. Judith Salerno believes she may have discovered a use for late-onset creativity, a condition that is known to affect individuals as early as their 60s. The affliction, if it can be called that, results in spontaneous creative expression by older folks--symptoms include sudden interest in painting, sculpting, drawing, or other creative outlets, sometimes for the first time in an individual's life.

Salerno, deputy director of the federal National Institute on Aging, is prescribing a course of treatment for late-onset creativity that involves pairing first- and second-year medical students from the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University with older adults from the Baltimore area. The groups will be encouraged to engage in joint artistic endeavors. In doing so, Salerno says, she hopes to learn more about late-onset creativity and break down students' negative attitudes about aging.

"Medical students have a skewed view about the elderly," Salerno says. "Their view of aging is the person sitting in the gurney in the hospital emergency room."

The National Institute on Aging has teamed up with Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum on the project, dubbed the Vital Visionaries Collaboration. It coincides with the museum's newly opened exhibit Golden Blessings of Old Age, which features works by artists whose creative awakening began after the age of 60. Six of the artists whose work appears in the exhibit are older than 100.

Among those featured in Golden Blessings are celebrated elder artists Grandma Moses, the self-taught painter of rural landscapes who painted her first canvas at age 79 and completed her last painting at 101, and Elizabeth Layton, who began drawing at age 68 after bouts with severe depression and electroshock therapy. Working 12 hours a day, Layton created a series of more than 1,000 self-portraits.

"This exhibit is really a love song to what is about to get older," says Rebecca Hoffberger, AVAM's director and founder. "Art was never ghettoized by age."

Hoffberger says the Vital Visionaries Collaboration will include at least four visits by participating medical students with their elder counterparts. The students and seniors will tour the Golden Blessings exhibit together and share observations about the work. There are also plans to have some of the exhibit's artists discuss their work with program participants, who will write journals, take pictures, and hopefully collaborate on a diptych to be exhibited at the museum during Older Americans Month in May 2004.

"Most of today's medical students didn't grow up with their grandparents," says Salerno, who hopes that the program will help the next generation of physicians become more sensitive to the needs of their older patients.

Salerno notes that a recent Yale University School of Medicine study indicated that older adults who internalize negative stereotypes of old age may live shorter lives. This project should help its participants view aging in a more positive light, she says. Though no studies have directly link art with longevity, Salerno and Hoffberger hope the Vital Visionaries Collaboration will spark more interest in the connection between art and medicine.

The National Institute on Aging is recruiting Baltimore-area adults 65 and over to participate in the Vital Visionaries Collaboration. For more information, call (202) 884-8611.

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