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Making Art Has a Profound Effect on Vulnerable Older Adults

When 'social inclusion' includes art, everyone in the community benefits


Part of the Artful Aging Special Report

If social inclusion is an important factor in promoting optimum wellness in older adults, what happens when you add arts to the equation?

Elaine Moody was curious about that question, so the nurse who was working on her Ph.D. at the University of British Columbia-Vancouver at the time, set out in search of an answer. She and her professor, Alison Phinney, went to work evaluating The Arts, Health and Seniors Project, whose goal was increasing community engagement among vulnerable older adults.

Spoiler alert: The three-year program, run by two Vancouver agencies, was profoundly effective at finding new ways for participants to engage with their communities and develop self-identities as artists. Next Avenue recently reached out to Moody to talk about her work and its implications for society at large.

Their kids and grandkids would see what they made and see them as artists rather than frail elderly people.

— Elaine Moody

The Arts and Social Inclusion

Next Avenue: How did you get interested in social inclusion?

Elaine Moody: I worked as a nurse in a variety of settings, and I was often struck by how isolated some seniors were. There are a lot of changes in people’s social circles as they get older, yet often they had few opportunities to develop new connections. I really enjoyed having seniors in my life and learned a lot from my interactions with them.

Also, both of my grandparents had cancer, and back then, in the ’80s, there weren’t a lot of social supports for older people as they experienced changes in their health. I saw firsthand how isolating it was for them. My grandparents were quite ill, so that was difficult, but seeing my mother and my aunts helping out was uplifting and something that I was really proud of. So I decided I wanted to focus on the care of older people.

What led you to research the role of the arts in caregiving?

When caregivers talk about older folks, they generally focus on health, but life is so much bigger than that. In nursing, we use a broader understanding of ‘health,’ which includes quality of life. Even when people are dealing with health issues, they’re still trying to make significant connections with other people and enjoy themselves through activities that are exciting and meaningful to them.

Can you describe the three-year program and what you sought to discover?

It was essentially an arts program for senior community members. It got local artists and others, like local schoolchildren, involved. There were also avenues for the seniors’ creations to be shared with the public through exhibitions and performances.

There were four neighborhood groups that worked with different types of expression: digital storytelling, puppetry, visual arts, and writing. We had heard about a great study by Gene Cohen, the late American gerontological psychiatrist, that showed how arts programs can have positive health outcomes, and we wanted to replicate that and see what we could find in terms of how the arts builds social supports, promotes mental health and contributes to physical health benefits.

What were some of the positive experiences that you observed?

People weren’t just sitting around doing crafts; they were working as a group toward a final outcome. Because they had to be accountable, they had to work together. One of the groups created beautiful painted scarves with imagery representing their memories of water.

In the intergenerational project, second-graders visited with older folks who generally didn’t have interactions with young people other than family members. Seeing them interact with the kids was a lot of fun. The seniors shared stories and explained the games they used to play. Then the kids interviewed them for mini-write-ups and drew their portraits, which they then gave to them. And they all laughed a lot at how the kids portrayed them.

Another great experience was seeing a group of women who spoke very little English work together to perform a puppetry show. The audience was absolutely captivated. It didn’t matter what language anyone spoke: They were able to communicate.

Several participants commented that this program was a reason for them to get out of the house — because other people were counting on them. They built new connections in the community and strengthened existing ones, with family members for example.

It was also good for other people to see the seniors being part of the community. The seniors made art that was shared in public buildings, in the streets and in community performances. Some seniors brought a quilt they’d made to the local library to be displayed, and they made flags to be hung on flagpoles lining the streets. Then, when they were walking around, people would ask them about their work. Also their own family members began to see them differently. Their kids and grandkids would see what they made and see them as artists rather than frail elderly people. Their family saw that they were making a significant contribution to the community.

Art is about how it makes people feel and how it relates, and about creating connection between people. Incidentally, ‘community’ isn’t necessarily geographic. Sometimes it’s about shared experiences or shared culture. There were projects among a group of Cantonese-speaking immigrants, LGBT seniors and First Nations communities.

What’s the takeaway for the rest of us?

It’s wonderful to think that you can be in your 70s and 80s and learn something new and be appreciated by your community as an artist in addition to the other things you’ve done in your life.

What effect do you think creating art can have an on people’s lives?

For one thing, some scholars have said there’s an innate part of us that needs to do this and that it gets our brain working in a particular, beneficial way. Some of the seniors said that expressing their emotions in an artistic or symbolic way helped them understand themselves better. A lot of people said that it was therapeutic and helped them deal with some of their negative emotions.

What can people who live on their own do?

I encourage any older person to become involved in his or her community in some way: art classes at a center, working with peers who are interested in writing, or organizing their own activity or social group, perhaps starting with friends or neighbors.

It seems that intergenerational work can be particularly positive. There might be volunteering opportunities at a pre-school or daycare center. Those with experience in some particular area could bring their expertise to young people and show them the beauty of art or music.

We tend to be dismissive of older people’s relevance and value. I think there are undertones in society saying that once you hit a certain age, your value is diminished. I think this project has shown how important older people are and how they can still contribute to younger people and to vibrant communities.

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