Visual Arts and Older Adult Learners in Retirement

Open Access
Hunt, Irma L
Graduate Program:
Adult Education
Doctor of Education
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
September 21, 2012
Committee Members:
  • Dr Ed Taylor, Dissertation Advisor/Co-Advisor
  • Dr Ed Taylor, Committee Chair/Co-Chair
  • Carolyn June Grasse Bachman, Committee Member
  • Dr Thomas Bettinger, Committee Member
  • Felicia Lynne Brown Haywood, Committee Member
  • Esther Susana Prins, Committee Member
  • older adults
  • generativity
  • art as a way of knowing
  • visual arts
  • retirement
  • older learners
  • adult education
ABSTRACT The purpose of this study was to explore the role of visual arts and its impact on successful aging and older adult learners in retirement. Retirement is one of the most important economic, psychological, and social transitions in most people’s lives. Longevity has increased in the last sixty years such that in 2010, the average person can expect to spend anywhere from 15 to 30 plus years in retirement. There are 78 million baby boomers, ranging in age currently from 48 - 65, who have recently started retiring and will continue leaving the workforce over the next decade. They will likely live more of their lives in retirement than the previous generation. In the current struggling economy, the new face of retirement for many may likely be part-time labor and full- time engagement in other activities. So what does retirement mean to older adult learners? Retirement is generally understood as a multidimensional construct that is shaped by biological, educational, social and cultural factors; and, thus, can be defined in many ways. Retirees in this study are creating pieces of visual art - be it sculpture, sewing, knitting, paintings, photographs - they are creating tangible products. The study was guided by the following research questions: What do older, retired adults perceive as the purpose of engaging in the visual arts? How does evidence of the role of creativity in successful aging inform educators in supporting life-long learning for retirees? And what is the relationship between engagement in the visual arts, generativity and successful aging? Three theoretical frameworks were utilized: successful aging, generativity and art as a way of knowing. Together, these concepts provide a robust and holistic lens for which to view the experiences of these older adult learners. The first conceptual framework is successful aging (Rowe & Kahn, 1998), which attempts to explain why some people age better than others. The second theory which is framed by human development and is seen as a positive aspect of healthy psychosocial development and aging is defined by the theory of generativity. This study also drew on the concept of art as a way of knowing which focuses on the ways in which adults learned through viewing and creating art. A legitimate need is further investigation into art as a way of knowing for adult populations. In the adult education literature, multiple ways of knowing have been reviewed and discussed. Creating artwork is a way of nonintellectual knowing, through emotion and body. This study utilized narrative inquiry, an interpretive methodology which was appropriate for this study because it involved the collection of people’s stories to explore their thoughts, feelings and experiences in relation to the research questions. I conducted in-depth face to face semi-structured interviews with 10 older adult learners in the Spring of 2012. I utilized a guided approach and audio recorded and transcribed all interviews. These retired participants shared how engagement in art helped them both physically and emotionally. Reasons why these older adults are engaged in art is because creativity can help people find joy, camaraderie and meaning and purpose as they move toward and through retirement. Other findings include that the participants felt that art was both a solitary and social activity; the participants were uncertain of their identities as artists based on how they produced their art; that art created a space for new learning and that there are degrees of generativity. The findings have implications for incorporating art in adult development, adult education, and retirement.