Aging: “Unlivable Without Art.”

When Steven Soderbergh in 2001 accepted his Academy Award for directing the movie Traffic, he issued an emotional plea for the critical importance of art in human survival.

“I want to thank anyone who spends part of their day creating,” said Soderbergh. “I don’t care if it’s a book, a film, a painting, a dance, a piece of theater, a piece of music… This life would be unlivable without art.”

Unlivable without art.

As a columnist covering aging issues for years, one of the central lessons I’ve learned is that artistic interventions like music, painting and theater spawn the most meaning and purpose — and better health — in old age.

The documentary Alive Inside recounts the powerful awakening influence of music on those with dementia. Famed choreographer Mark Morris has created a dance program specifically for those suffering from Parkinson’s disease that has spread nationwide – including two dance companies in California.

The California Arts Council is the state’s primary arts organization charged with infusing arts programming throughout the state.

Underfunded for years, the council finally received an additional $7.2 million for the current fiscal year from the state’s general fund, giving it a budget of under $12 million — which still ranks it 45th per capita nationwide.

And that’s a problem.

The funds are largely being used to help the council more adequately fund existing programs. In general, this means supporting the overall artistic health of the state without targeting specific groups outside the two considered most deserving: children and veterans.

Not older adults.

Meanwhile, the state is in the midst of what might be the greatest demographic shift in the history of the planet, with one in five Californians projected to be older adults by 2030 — a whopping 8.4 million older adults.

“Participation in arts interventions has been linked with improving cognitive function and memory, general self-esteem, and well-being, as well as reducing stress and other common symptoms of dementia, such as aggression, agitation, and apathy,” summarizes the 2013 federal report “The Arts and Aging: Building The Science.”

Shouldn’t the council be promoting more senior arts programming?

“We’ve been so underfunded for so many years,” laments Craig Watson, the council’s director.

Watson is well aware of the need to fund aging programs, and describes his frustration after conference calls with the National Center for Creative Aging, the country’s nexus for arts programs that benefit the elderly.

“We’re falling further and further behind.”

When Watson first took his post in 2011, the budget for the council was $5.4 million annually.

“We were dead last (nationally),” he says.

At its height in 2001, its budget was nearly $32 million — more than four times today’s total. That year, arts organizations also received other legislative line item appropriations giving California arts a combined $68 million.

Not only is the council today severely constrained financially, as a state-funded advocacy group, it can’t play favorites.

“We are in the business of serving all of California communities,” says Shelly Gilbride, the council’s program director. “As our budget increased we are piloting programs that target specific communities.”

Currently, the council funds only a handful of programs for older adults: the Invertigo Dance Theatre in Santa Barbara offers its Morris-inspired Dancing Through Parkinson’s program; F/STOP hosts photography classes to undeserved seniors in Mariposa County; and Oakland’s Stagebridge Senior Theatre will now have senior mentors at four East Bay elementary schools.

Other grant recipients benefit older adults — but as viewers rather than participants. The Firebird Youth Chinese Orchestra, for example, plays traditional Chinese music for underserved seniors in Santa Clara County.

Both Watson and Gilbride emphasize that older adults may be served by other broad-based programs supported by the council — which often takes a hands-off approach as to how the money is used.

“Most of our grant programs are up to the applicant to define,” says Gilbride.

The council is currently rolling out new initiatives that may help older adults indirectly — Creative California Communities and Artists Activating Communities — but the essential problem remains the same: older adults simply aren’t the focus.

“We are still in the research and development phase in how we’ll be addressing it,” hedges Gilbride.

Jane Chu, who chairs the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), recently toured California to explore its arts offerings, including a stop at a Los Angeles senior arts colony sponsored by the cutting-edge arts programmer EngAGE.

The NEA also hosted a panel on arts and aging at its annual conference earlier this year.

“There is a swell of interest in creative aging,” agrees Gilbride.

While the council waits, California’s senior population continues to explode — especially in underserved areas like the Latino community.

Gilbride says future support for aging could come in one of several forms: a targeted grant program for aging; training artists how to teach art to seniors; or showing administrators at senior living facilities how to introduce arts-based programming into their sites.

Whatever the council decides, it’s clear that artistic expression in the elder years is an essential component to successful aging.

“Sometimes it’s the only avenue of expression when everyday linear words can’t be used,” says the NEA’s Chu. “The arts are a great way of being an equalizer.”

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