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Gail Brooks, 74, created a Japanese floral arrangement to express her feelings about the Vital Visionaries, an arts-based program developed by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). To represent the older participants, she included a Harry Lauder Walking Stick, a twisting shrub, because “like some of us, it’s gnarled but there's still plenty of life in it. The daisies symbolize the fresh attitudes of the medical students, and the variegated Aucuba leaves represent the mingling of the young students and us older people.”
The mingling of young and old is at the heart of the Vital Visionaries project, which is being expanded to help rout negative stereotypes of aging. The goal of the program is to improve future doctors’ attitudes towards older people and to awaken in older people awareness of their creative possibilities. It is managed for NIA by the Society for the Arts in Healthcare, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit corporation that promotes the incorporation of the arts in health care.
Major medical schools and museums involved as 2006 Vital Visionaries partners are:
- Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and the Museum of Modern Art in New York
- The Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum in Chicago
- Washington University Medical School and the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis
- The University of Florida and the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art in Gainesville
In the spring and summer of 2006, the institutions will pair first-year medical students with healthy older people for a hands-on art journey at the museums. Before and after the four, two-hour art programs, the medical students and older participants will be asked about their attitudes towards aging.
“The Vital Visionaries is one of those rare programs where everyone has a lot of fun while achieving important goals,” said Judith A. Salerno, M.D., M.S., NIA deputy director. “Too often medical students only interact with ill and frail older people, so they may develop a skewed perspective. A first step towards improving care for older people is to improve how medical students see them.” In the 2004 pilot, medical students from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine experienced a significant improvement in their attitudes towards aging and older people.
The Vital Visionaries program is based on research that suggests medical students who interact with older people early in their medical training develop better attitudes towards aging. A University of Oklahoma study observed that “health care professionals tend to believe that most older individuals are frail and dependent and that those who are not are atypical” despite data showing that most elders are in good health and live in the community (Marie A. Bernard, M.D.).
The Vital Visionaries program was also based on Yale University studies that indicate older people who internalize negative stereotypes of old age suffer greater stress on their hearts and live fewer years (Becca Levy, Ph.D.). Preliminary results of research at the George Washington University now suggest a possible link between arts participation and wellness in older adults (Gene D. Cohen, M.D., Ph.D.).
This progressive program coincides with a decline in the number of physicians who specialize in medical problems associated with aging. Today, there are about 9,000 geriatricians in the United States, but an estimated 36,000 geriatricians will be needed by 2030 to treat the growing numbers of older people, according to a 2004 study contracted by the Association of Directors of Geriatric Academic Programs.
“The beauty of using art as a way to communicate with my partner Elaine [Rosenbloom, 76] is that we were both new to it so we could explore it together,” said Johns Hopkins medical student Cesar Briceno, 26. “I don’t know if I’m going to be a geriatrician but my attitude towards geriatrics has improved tremendously.”
The NIA leads the federal effort supporting and conducting research on aging and the health and well-being of older people. For more information on health and aging, visit the NIA website, www.nia.nih.gov  or call the NIA Information Center at 1-800-222-2225. More information about the Society for the Arts in Healthcare can be found at www.thesah.org .