by Jil Weaving and Margaret Naylor
The Arts and Health Project: Healthy Aging Through the Arts began under the name The Arts Health & Seniors Project in 2006 as a three year pilot. The Vancouver Park Board and Vancouver Coastal Health partnered with five other organizations in Vancouver and North Vancouver to provide professionally led arts programming to vulnerable seniors and to study how on-going involvement in community based creative arts practices could:
- improve the health and well-being of older adults facing economic, social and cultural obstacles that inhibit their optimal health and
- enhance the community perception of these seniors as active and valuable members of their community.
This initiative was inspired by Dr. Gene Cohen’s ground-breaking U.S. study The Creativity and Aging Study: the Impact of Professionally Conducted Cultural Programs on Older Adults.
To demonstrate a link between participation in the arts and wellness of vulnerable older people in British Columbia, data was collected over the three years of the Arts Health & Seniors Project and the research report based on this data will be released this fall. The report will explain a significant number of participants experienced improvement in their perceived (i.e. self-reported) health, a reduction in their experience of chronic pain, and an increased sense of community.
Due to the positive impact and popularity of this project it has continued beyond 2009, through the 2011/2012 season.
In 2010-2011 the project had six project sites in Vancouver and North Vancouver, each with an artist and a seniors worker; many also worked with an artist intern. A translator was also available at one site for Cantonese and Mandarin translations. Throughout each year of programming the professional artists, who are deeply engaged in the process of community arts practice, have worked collaboratively with seniors to develop creative processes that reflect the knowledge and life experiences of senior participants. Every year the artists and seniors have produced and exhibited and/or performed works that both reflect the commitment of the collective groups and provide insights into the rich life experiences of the seniors.
The Project structure has consistently included weekly workshops for seniors with professional artists and seniors workers, two annual Arts Experiences, consisting of visits to exhibitions/performances that can expand the seniors’ understanding and appreciation of their work as it relates to the broader field of art, a Community Exhibition/Performance and a curated Year-End Exhibition/Performance of all participating seniors’ work in June.
The project structure also has included peer learning and professional development opportunities for artists and seniors’ workers through Community of Practice meetings and workshops. In 2010-2011 the “CoP” structure has evolved from 6 meetings for artists and seniors workers to 3 “CoP” meetings, 2 capacity building workshops and 3 artist exchange visits to other project seniors group workshops. This change has come about as a result of the artists and seniors’ workers desire to increase the level of exchange and sharing of knowledge within the project.
The intended long-term outcome of this project is “strong, healthy communities that engage seniors as full and active participants and that value the arts as a key contributor to health.”