Ageing with humanities: a review of studies and benefits

When I was a child I loved old people, then at a young age, I don’t know, I frequented old people more than the young. Because from the old people I learned wisdom and I was listening to what they were telling me. And, at that time, the old people were more altruistic. I remember one thing in particular: I couldn’t wait to get old. (Eduardo De Filippo)

These words of the famous Neapolitan playwright remind us of the importance of listening, especially with regard to a human category that is too often, more or less voluntarily, put aside, hidden: that of the elderly. In many cases, relegated to austere hospices and far from the gaze of the active society to which they have collaborated for decades, they often begin to suffer from mental illnesses – depression, loneliness, apathy – even before those, unfortunately inevitable, of the body. From another point of view, a medicine and a cure firmly linked to the world of humanities, which prefers a more sensitive approach and attention to the subject, an approach that can restore dignity to the existence of the most vulnerable, through art and narrative. Numerous studies have moved in this direction.

For example, the curative qualities of art have been documented by many research studies conducted in Great Britain, Scandinavia and other countries, and more progressivists hospitals seek the advice of professionals to select and provide appropriate works of art. There are increasing evidences to support the thesis that the work of art has a measurable positive effect on patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia. Nursing homes are on the way to adopt works of art specifically selected in order to deal with the illnesses of their residents. Choosing the perfect work of art for a nursing home requires very specific guidelines, as Jan Marion, owner of H. Marion Framing Studio, Inc. in Chicago, points out:

Elderly residents in the nursing home environment are in high need of stimulation, and giving them artistic pictures to stimulate their imagination is a way to achieve this goal.

Raphael DeOcampo, director of Dementia and Special Care at Holy Family Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, agrees with the value of pictures of comfort, noting that:

“Our residents are particularly fond of a certain image in which an old man and a boy – presumably, a grandfather and a nephew – are sitting together on a bench.”

The staff will bring a resident to the photo, will point it out and say:

“What do you see in this? What do you remember?”

The resident will reply:

“I remember being with my grandfather.”

A study entitled “Dignity of older people in a nursing home: narratives of care providers“, published in 2010, aimed at illuminating the ethically challenging situations experienced by care providers working in a nursing home. Individual interviews were held by using a narrative approach. In the analysis, a phenomenological hermeneutical method developed for the research of life experience was employed. The results showed that health professionals face ethical challenges in their daily work. The informers of this study found that the balance between ideal, autonomy and dignity was a daily problem. They have called the culture in which they worked as unsupportive. Care facilities for the elderly are obviously an ethical challenge, especially for people with dementia. Participants in this study have expressed frustration and feelings of impotency.

We can then shift to Iran, where a very unique study, “The Effect of Person-Centered Narrative Therapy on Happiness and DeathAnxiety of Elderly People“, has been conducted on the subject of the interconnection between humanities and the elderly. The aim was to investigate the effectiveness of narrative therapy centered on the person to increase happiness and reduce anxiety about death in older people. Among the population of elderly people in nursing homes in Tehran, the research tool included the Oxford Questionnaire on Happiness (1989) and the Anxiety Scale of the Death of the Templer. Graphical charts and analyses were used to evaluate the data. The results showed that person-centred narrative therapy has a positive effect on increasing happiness and reducing anxiety about death. The percentage change for happiness and anxiety was 42% and 53% respectively. The effects of these improvements remained largely unaltered during the follow-up period. Therefore, narrative therapy can be utilised and translates into a sense of inner rest.

A further study, “Loneliness, depression and sociability in old age“, carried out by Archana Singh and Nishi Misra, revealed a significant relationship between depression and solitude. The study was carried out on 55 elderly people (men and women). The tools used were the Beck Depression Inventory, the UCLA Loneliness Scale and the Eysenck Sociability Scale:

Many people experience solitude and depression in older life, either because they live alone, or because of a lack of close family relationships and limited ties with their culture of origin, leading to an inability to participate actively in community activities. As people grow older, it is inevitable that people may lose connection to their friendship networks and that they may find more difficult to start new friendships and be part of new networks.

Brazil has also made a scientific contribution to research on the subject, entitled “Factors associated with happiness in the elderly persons living in the community“, demonstrating that psychological factors and age influence the levels of happiness in older adults living in the community. A study was conducted with 263 elderly people in the area of a family health unit in the state of São Paulo, Brazil. The Subjective Happiness Scale was used to measure happiness, whose final score determined one of three results: not happy, mid-way, and happy. Disabilities, socio-demographic characteristics and psychological factors, cognitive and physical have been taken into account. There were statistically significant differences between the three groups in regards to life satisfaction, disability, social phobia, anxiety, depression and fragility. The conclusions of the research have shown that better screening, diagnosis and treatment of mental health disorders could increase the sense of happiness among older adults.

Coming home, a study conducted by researchers at the Catholic University of Milan (Federica Biassoni, Giada Cassina and Stefania Balzarotti), entitled “Autobiographical Narration as a Tool for the Empowerment of Older Adults’ Subjective and Psychological Wellbeing in Nursing Homes“, once again underlined how narration can be an excellent resource to promote the wellbeing of the elderly, especially in nursing homes. Twenty-one residents of nursing homes participated in a narrative training experience that consisted of three weekly interview sessions. During each interview, a psychologist helped the participants to build an autobiographical narration of their current life in the nursing home, based on a Deconstruction/Reconstruction technique. The psychological and subjective well-being variables were evaluated before and after the intervention. Subjective but non-psychological well-being increased during the intervention. The results suggest that short narrative training based on narrative therapy can positively influence the subjective well-being of the residents of a nursing home.

Finally, we present to our readers an interesting research produced by Teresa Wills and Mary Rose Day, entitled “Valuing the person’s story: Use of life story books in a continuing care setting“, concerning the use of life history books within care contexts. Life story books (LSBs) can provide a holistic view of older adults, promote relationship-centred care and improve person-centred care. The LSBs development process requires the collection and registration of aspects of a person’s life, both past and present. The aim of this study was that of involving nursing home residents in the development of books of life stories in a nursing home environment and then exploring the documented narratives with residents and their families. A qualitative exploratory description was used for the study. Five residents and three family carers participated. The central themes of the data analysis were the social construction of people’s lives, social roles and religious values, relationships and losses, and sense of self.

We conclude this brief review by leaving you with some excerpts from the latter case analyzed:

“I feel that I have generally lived a rich life, alternating a quiet despair with a high level of neglect. Looking back at my life I feel very satisfied.”

“I was lost without my life partner. He was a wonderful husband and father whom I loved very much. I was very proud of him and this book of life stories is a tribute to him.”

“Times were hard for people, many were leaving when they were twelve for financial reasons but, somehow, we have always managed to get by, without having to owe anything to anyone.”

“My faith is stronger than ever. I rarely miss Mass and say the rosary every evening with some friends in my new home.”



Written by

Graduated in Literature at the University of Eastern Piedmont, he's now studying anthropological and ethnological science at the University of Milano-Bicocca. Journalist and writer, he collaborated with many local newspapers and in the 2015 he published his first book "Qui non arriva la pioggia". In the 2017 published "Il peccato armeno, ovvero la binarietà del male".

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.