CIRCLE OF LIFE: Grand Gestures dance group comprises older people who have now formed an independent collective after being developed and supported by British-based Equal Arts. Equal Arts co-director Alice Thwaite is among 12 international speakers at this year's International Arts and Health conference.
CIRCLE OF LIFE: Grand Gestures dance group comprises older people who have now formed an independent collective after being developed and supported by British-based Equal Arts. Equal Arts co-director Alice Thwaite is among 12 international speakers at this year's International Arts and Health conference. Courtesy Equal Arts

Create happiness and health with a dose of the arts

NOVEMBER is Arts and Health Month and that's a great chance for us all to indulge in what makes our brains and bodies happy.

From November 12-15 more than 80 experts in the field of Arts and Health from Australia and internationally will present their work focusing on mental health and resilience through the arts at the 10th International Arts and Health Conference in Port Macquarie, NSW.

Conference convenor and Australian Centre for Arts and Health founder and executive director Margret Meagher said it was now recognised that engagement in the arts - that is, actively taking part - lifts mood, increases confidence and self-esteem, can reduce the length of hospital stays and reliance on medication and improves heart and respiratory function.

"Arts programs for health and wellbeing for people of all ages are no longer just a 'nice to have'," Margret said.

"There is now robust and extensive research which documents the transformative power of music, dance, theatre, visual arts, narrative writing and more, in the face of many of life's challenges.

"And it's incredibly cost-effective in reducing reliance on medication and healthcare services, while enhancing peoples' resilience and abilities, as valued members of our society... How good is that!"

The financial savings to government amount to millions on the basis of reduced reliance on medication alone.

Margret believes the power of the arts comes from a combination of activity, sense of purpose and achievement, as well as the social connections made - vital in our increasingly digital world.

"A research paper in the US made the statement that loneliness is more detrimental to health and wellbeing than smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and is more likely to usher in an early death," Margret Meagher said.

While still in its infancy in Australia, in the United Kingdom the medical profession has already accepted Arts on Prescription as an effective treatment for many conditions.

Last month British Prime Minister Teresa May announced National Health System funding for a "loneliness strategy" to encourage GPs to refer people to social activities including ballroom dancing, art, cookery and music groups, rather than handing out pills.

Figures there suggest that 200,000 older people had not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month, and three-quarters of GPs reported seeing up to five people a day due to loneliness-associated symptoms.

With the world's older population coming to the point that it outnumbers the young, and dementia the single greatest cause of disability in Australia's over-65s, Creative Ageing and Dementia are key areas of practice and research to be explored at the conference.

Founder of America's Alzheimer's Poetry Project Gary Glazner uses "echo memory" to engage people with even late stage dementia in a poetry call and response.

The rhythm and rhyme excite their language centres, firing the synapses, brightening faces, bringing laughter and social connection.

Gary said family members have told him, "you've given me back the person I used to know", if only for a few precious moments, and there is anecdotal evidence of long-term benefits.

Another speaker, Dominic Campbell, co-founder of the UK's Creative Aging International, firmly believes we can create better ways of ageing by making it a positive experience.

He is challenging conference-goers to leave his workshop and lead their own creative ageing festivals within 12 months.

"Festivals are places that people go to experience things; to try new food, new dance, art, craft or tunes ... Why not new ways of living longer ... discovering the future you?" he asks.

Other specialist areas include the arts in relation to Youth and General Mental Health, Disability, Hospitals, the Environment, Aboriginal, CALD and Refugee communities, Palliative and Stroke Care and Graphic Medicine.

To find out more about the conference, speakers, the work of ACAH and to register to attend, go to artsandhealth.org.au. #artshealth18


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