Many older adults opt to pursue a number of artistic pursuits in their retirement. There have been previous reviews of older adults’ arts participation that note the health and social benefits of such participation, but until now, none have looked specifically at the benefits associated with theater arts. A recent review in The Gerontologist surveyed 77 published studies on theater participation and summarized their findings.
The first main area reviewed was theater’s impact on health and well-being. Here, studies have shown decreased anxiety and loneliness, increased sense of value and purpose, and other emotional benefits including fun, happiness, and a sense a freeing of the imagination. Cognitive benefits include improvements in memory, word generation, and comprehension and problem solving.
Another major area explored was the role of theater in enhancing or transforming group relationships. This includes intergenerational relationships, relationships between individuals from different racial and cultural backgrounds, and relationships between individuals at varying levels of care and their peers, caregivers, and families. The authors write that, “Dramatic role play and devising appear to be particularly effective in of producing a safe space for expressing and challenging age-related stereotypes and finding commonalities and accepting differences.”
Another value of theater identified in this review is the opportunity for learning and creativity. This is likely implicated in the cognitive benefits noted above, but the researchers note that “through taking on and meeting challenges, older people gain a sense of achievement, enrichment and fulfillment.” They note that this not only impacts older adults’ lives, but has a potential wider social impact of challenging ageist stereotypes.
Lastly, the review discusses the cultural value provided by older adults’ performances. The authors suggest that research should not just focus on theater’s benefits for older adults, but also on the esthetic experience of the audience. This has been little studied to date and deserves more attention.
In light of this research, within the aging services field there should be attention paid to providing interested older adults with opportunities to engage with the theater arts, either via in-house programming or by connecting them with local theater groups.