Can Poetry Keep You Young? Science Is Still Out, But The Heart Says Yes

Feb 20, 2017
Originally published on February 21, 2017 10:48 am

Creating some form of art is commonly believed to help older people stay mentally and physically healthy. Scientific research hasn't quite caught up with that belief.

But that hasn't deterred the dozen or so older adults in Janet Hoult's poetry workshop. She refers to them all as "my poets." They meet weekly at the Culver City Senior Center in Culver City, Calif. Hoult is 80. Her eldest pupil, Ruth Berman, is 91.

Like everyone in the class on the day I visit, Berman's brought some new work to share. It's a sweet poem about a gift from her granddaughter, expressed in rhyming couplets.

"My jewelry that's real is hidden out of sight," she reads, "but my butterfly necklace, I wear day and night." Another member of the class has a more meditative piece. Terry Dicks' poem is about her spiritual struggles — her choice between "mud," as she puts it, and her quest for the place "where miracles flow and all rain is holy water."

Regardless of age or subject matter, everyone here is serious about becoming a better poet. Ruth Berman says she works on each assignment all week.

"As soon as I leave the class, I go home and all these thoughts come into my mind," says Berman. "I write and I rewrite and I write. I must do it about 30 times before I get it the way I want it to be."

You wouldn't guess, from Berman's cheerful enthusiasm, what led her to start writing poetry. She took it up just last year after her husband died.

"It was sudden," she says of his death. "Very sudden. And I knew that I had to keep busy in order to focus and live again."

Researchers say there's no scientific proof that poetry — or any other artistic pursuit — actually helps older people live longer or live better.

"We still have a long way to go in understanding physical health outcomes," says Sunil Iyengar, the director of research and analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts.

It would be great to know for sure, Iyengar says, because compared to other kinds of health interventions, engaging in the arts is pretty inexpensive.

But it can be difficult to study. Making art is a complex process. Sometimes it's done alone. Sometimes in a group. And singing might have a different impact than painting or writing.

"We're not talking about a pill," says Iyengar. "We're not talking about [testing] a device. We're talking about something that is so deeply embedded in our culture and our society, and that contains ... many factors."

So far, research findings on the relationship between the arts and health have been all over the map. A roundup of some 30 studies shows that while most found benefits, they didn't measure the same things. Some looked at physical effects, like fewer falls or less use of medication. Others looked at effects on the mind — like improved memory or decreased depression. Unfortunately, many of the studies had no control groups, and were often too small to draw meaningful conclusions.

Iyengar says federal agencies are now funding more rigorous research and the results are just starting to come in. The early evidence suggests that the arts have positive cognitive, social, and emotional impacts on older adults.

For Hoult, the leader of the poetry workshop in Southern California, the emotional sustenance she gained from writing her first poems was profound. That was in 1999, after her son was killed in an accident.

Poetry "helped me begin to focus how I felt about losing my son," she says. "When you lose, you also remember what you had before the loss. And so poetry allows you to begin to look at a relationship, at what was of value to you."

In Hoult's workshop, Marsha Wilde reads a poem expressing a sense of loss on a global scale.

"How many words for murder do we already have in our North American language?" she asks. "Are there enough? Should we invent more? Would we write better poems if we invented more words that mean destruction? "

It was a long poem and there was silence in the room when she finished reading it. Most of the poems that are read aloud here tend to be lighter. But that doesn't matter. The people in this room all support each other. Ruth Berman says she loves each and every poem and all of the poets, too.

"I find them all fascinating," she says. "I want to get up and hug each one of them. They bring me such joy."

Even though science can't yet tell us if this poetry workshop is improving Ruth Berman's health, it's clearly doing her heart a lot of good.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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.

HOULT: Super.

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") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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