RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We've all heard that old advice to writers - that you're supposed to write what you know. Well, by the time people are in their 70s, 80s or even 90s, they know a whole lot, and they're often eager to express it, either in writing, painting or some other kind of art form. That is commonly understood to have a lot of health benefits for older people. But the research hasn't quite caught up with that idea. Here's NPR's Ina Jaffe.
JANET HOULT: OK. Who else has something today?
INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Just about everyone in Janet Hoult's poetry workshop has brought some new work to read.
Ruth, do you have something today?
JAFFE: Hoult, the instructor, is 80. The novice poet she calls on is Ruth Berman, who's 91. Her poem is about a gift from her granddaughter.
RUTH BERMAN: (Reading) I wear my butterfly necklace all the time. It may not be real gold. That's just fine.
JAFFE: The workshop meets weekly at the Culver City Senior Center in Southern California. Harsh criticism is banned, so students can write about anything without fear. Terry Dicks examined her spiritual struggles.
TERRY DICKS: (Reading) I want to be inside the sacredness of my life, where miracles flow and all rain is holy water.
JAFFE: Regardless of age or subject matter, everyone here is serious about becoming a better poet. Ruth Berman says she works on her assignment all week.
BERMAN: You know, as soon as I leave the class, I go home and all these thoughts come into my mind. I write, and then I rewrite, and I write. And I must do it about 30 times before I get it the way I want it to be.
JAFFE: You wouldn't guess from Berman's cheerful enthusiasm why she started writing poetry. She took it up last year - after her husband died.
BERMAN: It was sudden, very sudden. And I knew that I had to keep busy in order to focus and live again.
JAFFE: But there's no proof that poetry or any other artistic pursuit helps older people live longer or live better, says Sunil Iyengar, director of research and analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts.
SUNIL IYENGAR: We still have a long way to go in terms of understanding physical health outcomes.
JAFFE: That's partly because making art is a complex process, says Iyengar, and that makes it hard to measure the impact.
IYENGAR: We're not talking about a pill. We're not talking about a device. We're talking about something that is so deeply embedded in our culture and our society and that contains, with it, many factors.
JAFFE: A roundup of some 30 studies on the arts in older adults shows they didn't even measure the same things. Some looked at physical effects, like fewer falls. Others looked at mental impacts, like memory or depression. And often, the studies were too small to draw meaningful conclusions. Iyengar says the NEA is now funding more rigorous research, and the results are just starting to come in.
IYENGAR: Cognitive, social, emotional outcomes, I think, are where we have the strongest suit right now for showing improvements in outcomes where the arts is concerned.
JAFFE: Emotional support is what workshop instructor Janet Hoult found when she began writing poetry. That was in 1999, after her son was killed in an accident.
HOULT: It helped me begin to focus how I felt about losing my son - because when you lose, you also remember what you had before the loss. And so it allows you to begin to look at a relationship. What was it that was of value to you?
JAFFE: In Hoult's workshop, Marsha Wilde's poem expresses her sense of loss on a global scale.
MARSHA WILDE: (Reading) How many words for murder do we already have in our North American language? Are there enough? Should we invent more? Would we write better poems if we invented more words which mean destruction?
JAFFE: When Wilde finished reading, there was silence. Most poems read here tend to be lighter, but that doesn't matter. The poets here all support each other. Ruth Berman says she loves each and every poem - and all of the poets, too.
BERMAN: I think they're fascinating, each and every one. I want to get up and hug each one of them. They all bring me such joy.
JAFFE: So science can't tell us yet if this poetry workshop is benefiting Ruth Berman's health. But it seems to be doing her heart a lot of good.
Ina Jaffe, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF EL TEN ELEVEN'S "CEASE AND PERSIST")
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