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The link between cultural participation and well-being in later life

The biggest predictor of older people’s quality of life is their involvement in artsy activities

Daily chartThe link between cultural participation and well-being in later life

The biggest predictor of older people’s quality of life is their involvement in artsy activities

“BOOK CLUB”, a new film, is a parable about the virtues of reading in old age. The four protagonists are women in their 70s who are stuck in personal and professional ruts, variously bereaved, lonely or regretful. That is, until one of the ladies brings “Fifty Shades of Grey” to their monthly literary meeting. The saucy story proves stimulating, encouraging the women to pursue enthusiastically whatever it is that is missing from their lives. 

In reality, few book clubs are quite so invigorating. But the sentiment of the film—that participating in cultural or creative activities can lead to a greater sense of fulfillment in later life—is bang on. Age UK, a British charity, has created an index of well-being based on survey data for 15,000 Britons older than 60. Its researchers found that a set of 40 social and economic indicators are the most useful for estimating a person’s overall quality of life. They did so using a statistical technique called structural-equation modelling, which examines the relationship between a diverse set of variables and assigns a weight to each one. The final well-being scores that the index produced for each person were closely correlated with their perceptions of life satisfaction. However, the model excluded that survey question because the statisticians wanted to come up with an objective measurement of quality of life. 

Unsurprisingly, the charity found that wealth, health, education and emotional support all had significant effects on well-being. However, the measure with the biggest impact, when holding all other factors constant, was the number of creative and cultural activities in which somebody participates. The data could not reveal which type of art provided the greatest boost. Rather, they show that sampling a range of them, from photography to playing an instrument, was strongly correlated with a greater quality of life. Age UK’s research suggests that such activities can give people fulfillment, entertainment and social contacts that might otherwise be missing in their daily lives.

The top 20% of survey respondents in terms of well-being were considerably more engaged in artsy hobbies than those in the bottom 20% were. They were four times as likely to have attended a play in the last year, and seven times more likely to have visited an art exhibition. Age UK suggests that improving transport links, arranging more age-friendly events at cultural establishments and encouraging older people to get involved in the arts (perhaps at the suggestion of doctors and carers, or through advertisements in local shops) could help close those gaps. Fortunately, the erotic novels of E.L. James are easy to acquire. 

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