An Art for Life Program Guide for Creative Aging, Health, and Wellness

An Art for Life Program Guide for Creative Aging, Health, and Wellness

Sundogs and sunflowers toolkit images

The North Dakota Council on the Arts’ (NDCA) nationally-recognized Art for Life Program brings together local arts agencies, elder care facilities, schools, and folk and contemporary artists to improve the health and wellness of elders through intensive art and artist interactions.

Informed by years of practical experience and contextualized with medical studies and folk culture, this resource consists of dozens of online articles and activity plans developed by folk and traditional artists, fine artists, folklorists, physicians, nurses, speech therapists, psychologists, and academics. The toolkit consists of:

  • Sundogs and Sunflowers: An Art for Life Program Guide for Creative Aging, Health, and Wellness
  • Sundogs and Sunflowers: Folklore and Folk Art of the Northern Great Plains
  • Dozens of online articles and activity plans
  • Take Flight and On the Edge of the Wind, a guided imagery CD set with user manual

NDCA, with the generous support of the Bush Foundation, made these materials available to 1,200 local arts agencies and elder care facilities in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Minnesota, as well as nationally.

It is intended to inform and direct communities to utilize both folk and fine arts to positively address the health and wellness of elders, whether through home-care systems, elder care facilities, or senior citizens’ centers. The activities can be modified to align with the cultural, artistic, and other resources unique to every community.

By making a conscious effort and thinking creatively, we can use arts, traditions, and the people who are masters of them within our own communities to navigate perplexing, modern-day issues in effective ways.  Our greatest resources often can be found in our very own backyards. We encourage communities to replicate this model to the benefit of elders everywhere. (This same information can also be found on the original Wix website.)

Program Guide

Art is medicine. An ever-growing body of evidence is revealing just how dynamic, complex, and powerful creativity actually is. This text (Sundogs and Sunflowers:  An Art for Life Program Guide for Creative Aging, Health, and Wellness - LARGE FILE, may take extra time to download) and associated materials, seeks to connect the dots, provide examples across the arts and sciences, and contextualize creative aging, health, and wellness efforts, especially with regard to folk and traditional arts. Based on NDCA's successful Art for Life Program, it serves as a guide for individuals and organizations to utilize local culture, form community partnerships, and use the online activity plans to improve the lives of elders residing in care facilities or living on their own. It is recommended strongly that this text be read by both those in the medical and the artistic community prior to engaging elders with the associated toolkit materials.


“I do not think that I have ever read a better documentation of the evolution, research, and rationale for practice in the area of creative aging, health, and wellness.  It is a must have for anyone interested in providing excellent care and service for elders. Its thoughtful approach addresses the background, need, and purpose of this important work — bringing joy and comfort coupled with potential through creative expression that ties back to our deepest roots in folklife traditions. The guide lets the sun shine into some of life’s darkest times.”

~ Gay Hanna, Ph.D., MFA, Executive Director Emerita, National Center for Creative Aging, Washington, D.C.

“This book and its associated materials comprise a highly practical and inspiring resource for anyone engaged in programming with older adults. It provides compelling arguments, theoretical underpinnings, and evidence supporting the power of art to advance wellbeing and healing. Detailed lesson plans that promote cross-disciplinary collaborations, powerful testimonies, and use of a wide variety of art genres that intertwine folk and fine cultural expressions as well as traditional and western medical perspectives all represent a major contribution to multiple fields. We see this volume becoming a standard text for educators, artists/educators, therapists, other health care providers, and policymakers.”

~ Marsha MacDowell, Ph.D., Curator and Professor of Art, Michigan State University Museum, and Clare Luz, Ph.D., College of Human Medicine, Michigan State University; co-authors Quilts and Health

“Drawing from nearly two decades of work with seniors, this guide distills the research that underpins the North Dakota Council on the Arts’ successful arts and aging program, and shares the methods and materials needed to implement their approach. Recognizing the significant role cultural knowledge and traditions play in the aging process, this text has the potential to transform how we care for older generations.”

~ Jon Kay, Director of Traditional Arts Indiana, Mathers Museum of World Cultures; author Folk Art & Aging

Activity Plans, Articles, Videos, and Other Resources

Activity Plans, Articles, Videos, and Other Resources
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Activity Plans

These activity plans were written in a step-by-step way to help guide an individual or organization regardless of experience. They can be utilized by elder care activities directors, volunteers, teachers, or local artists.  Working with artists, but in tandem with elder care facility staff, is strongly encouraged.

The plans are designed to be integrated, connected to local culture, and with an eye towards health and wellness. Every plan is accompanied by synopses of medical studies to contextualize the art engagement.  Some plans are simple and short in duration, others are more involved and lengthy.  Because each community and group of elders is different, feel free to adjust or modify the plans accordingly.

If you were not one of the 1,200 local arts agencies and elder care facilities to receive a copy of the book Sundogs and Sunflowers: Folklore and Folk Art of the Northern Great Plains, upon which these activity plans are designed, or the guided imagery CD set Take Flight and On the Edge of the Wind, email about how to obtain them.

Activity Plans

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The videos below highlight the activity plans as well as the connection between art and wellness; the content of the book Sundogs and Sunflowers: Folklore and Folk Art of the Northern Great Plains; samples of activities conducted by the NDCA’s Art for Life Program partners and that are included in the list of online activity plans; and testimonials from local arts agencies and elder care facilities regarding the impact of the Art for Life Program.

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Other Resources

Consider exploring other resources to augment the Sundogs and Sunflowers: An Art for Life Program Guide for Creative Aging, Health, and Wellness Toolkit.

  • Arts in Medicine Literature Review – by Gay Hanna, Ph.D., MFA, with Judy Rollins, Ph.D., RN, and Lorie Lewis, MA, and Grantmakers in the Arts, 2017.
  • Dance for Parkinson's Disease offers internationally-acclaimed dance classes for people with Parkinson’s. Dance, music, and movement has been shown to beneficial effects for people with mobility issues. This organization provides training, instructional media, and information regarding dance and Parkinson’s disease.
  • Music & Memory is a non-profit organization that trains elder care facility staff and others to create personalized playlists using iPods and other technologies to capitalize on the emotional and physiological impact of music for people with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and other cognitive issues. To access further information, workshops, or to become trained visit
  • Folk Art and Aging: Life-Story Objects and Their Makers – by Jon Kay, Director of Traditional Arts Indiana, Curator of Folklife and Cultural Heritage, Mathers Museum of World Cultures, Bloomington, Indiana, 2016
    • “Growing old doesn’t have to be seen as an eventual failure but rather as an important developmental stage of creativity. Offering an absorbingly different perspective on aging and crafts, Jon Kay explores how elders choose to tap into their creative and personal potential through making life-story objects. Carving, painting, and rug hooking not only help them cope with the ails of aging and loneliness but also achieve greater satisfaction with their lives. Whether revived from childhood memories or inspired by their capacity to connect to others, meaningful memory projects serve as a lens for focusing on, remaking, and sharing the long-ago. As Kay observes, it can be a solitary journey for those who reconsider their past in such a markedly material way. These activities often help seniors productively fill the hours after they have raised their children, retired from their jobs, and/or lost a loved one. These individuals forge new identities for themselves that do not erase their past lives but build on them—new lives that include sharing scenes and stories from their memories."
    • Memory Art and Aging Video: Lessons on Successful Aging and the Arts (2:29)
  • The MoMA Alzheimer’s Project: Making Art Accessible to People with Dementia provides online instructional videos for facilitating art discussion and art programming for people with Alzheimer’s disease. The videos are particularly applicable to museums and art galleries. 
  • The National Center for Creative Aging (NCCA) is a leader in advocacy, capacity-building, education, and national initiatives in the field of creative aging. They are working with state arts agencies across the country helping them to create effective arts and aging programming. The NCCA has an extensive Online Artist Training in Arts and Aging as well as a Creative Caregiving Guide available. Both are very insightful and valuable.
  • The Summit on Creativity and Aging in America was produced in collaboration with the 2015 White House Conference on Aging, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Center for Creative Aging. This informative text discusses lifelong learning, community design, and the nexus between health, wellness, and the arts.
  • is a storytelling protocol for people with memory issues or forms of dementia. It was developed by Anne Basting, Ph.D., a Founding Director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center on Age and Community. TimeSlips utilizes images to engage elders in storytelling that stresses imagination, rather than attempts to recall memory. Visit for information on workshops and online certification or training.
    • Sally Jeppson of Gackle, ND, is certified in the TimeSlips program and has conducted workshops and residencies for many of the NDCA’s Art for Life Program partners. She states, "As the Art for Life Program coordinator for the Jamestown Arts Center, in association with North Dakota Council on the Arts, we are working to improve the lives and well-being of seniors across North Dakota by using art and arts activities. By continually innovating, and using techniques such as TimeSlips, in concert with original art, exhibits and contracted artists, we provide resources and activities to eldercare centers that help transform the lives of their residents as well as the facility's staff and culture." If you would like to work with a certified TimeSlips trainer and someone who is very familiar with the Art for Life Program, you can contact her at
  • Weaving Traditional Arts into the Fabric of Community Health is a 2011 publication produced by the Alliance for California Traditional Arts directed by Amy Kitchener. This important work explores the association between the participation in and performance of traditional arts and health and wellness. Community-based arts plays a key role in this association.