When you engage in creative expression, it actually improves health. The No. 1 mental illness for older adults is depression. That's because people don't have meaningful and purposeful things to do. —Susan Perlstein

OREM — Between Americans' increasing life spans and a baby boomer population that has become decidedly gray, the nation's elders outnumber preschoolers more than 2 to 1.

To optimize the physical and emotional health of seniors, they need to be engaged in meaningful activities and communities, says Susan Perlstein, a nationally recognized expert in the field of creativity and aging.

"When you engage in creative expression, it actually improves health. The No. 1 mental illness for older adults is depression. That's because people don't have meaningful and purposeful things to do," said Perlstein, who is an educator, social worker, administrator and artist.

Perlstein, founder of the National Center for Creative Aging, will present a free workshop Friday at Utah Valley University for anyone interested in expanding activities and programs that foster artistic expression in older adults.

There is no charge for the event, "Creativity Matters! Art for Older Adults," to be conducted from 9 a.m to noon at Ragan Theater in the Sorensen Student Center. To register, go to EngAGEUtah.org.

The workshop is designed for artists, health care providers and anyone interested in creativity in older adults. Participants will take part in exercises that demonstrate best practices in the field of arts and aging, principles of lifelong learning through the arts, fundamentals of arts and community engagement, and use of the arts in social service and health care settings.

According to 2012 census figures, Utahns ages 65 and older slightly outnumber children under 5. Perlstein said not only are American adults living longer, many are living healthier lives than their predecessors. According to the U.S. Census, the average life span for Utahns is 75 years for men and 80 years for women.

"The major point is, since people are living longer and healthier lives, we need to creatively engage people and help them give back and create vibrant communities that include all people," Perlstein said.

Research shows that engaging in creative expression not only benefits participants, but it can foster relationships between frail elders and their caregivers, she said.

"That's because it's meaningful engagement again," Perlstein said. "You're not just asking the older person, 'Are you taking your medication?' Instead, you're asking, 'What color would you like to paint?'"

Creative expression also can be used to connect youths to their elders. Here again, seniors are purposefully engaged and youths benefit from learning their personal and cultural histories.

"Older people are the keepers of their culture. It's important to make sure there are connections between them and the youth," she said.

Some communities, for instance, pair schools with senior centers. Seniors teach students art and history. In some cases, all participate in living history plays, further bridging the generations.

Workshop organizer Ken Crossley said college students majoring in fine arts or health care majors are also welcome to attend the workshop "to learn about the enhanced employment opportunities of working in the expanding field of creative aging.”

The project is supported in part by the Utah Division of Arts and Museums, with funding from the state and the National Endowment for the Arts.

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Perlstein has written or co-authored of several books, including "Alert and Alive, Generating Community." In spring 2006, she was guest editor of Generations Journal on Arts and Aging.

She has also contributed to the educational offerings of the American Society on Aging. Perlstein received the Cavanaugh Award for Excellence in “Creativity and Aging” training and served on the American Society on Aging board of directors.

Her articles appear in numerous professional journals, including Arts in the Public Interest, Gerontology and in the American Society on Aging’s Aging Today.

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com