Guest Blog: Dancing through life: Participation in a dance training program for community-based older adults with multiple medical comorbidities issues

By Kate Dupuis

Dance is one of the oldest art forms, with depictions of dancers dating back over 30,000 years. Even if we think that we have “two left feet”, when a favourite song comes on the radio, it is hard not to tap our toes or dance along in our seats. Throughout our lifespan, dance can help us to connect with others, express our emotions, and strengthen our bodies. Indeed, dance has many potential benefits as we age. Research has shown that, as we age, dance can benefit cognitive health (for example, improvements in memory and processing speed when remembering fancy footwork during ballroom dancing, or trying to keep up with the caller’s instructions when square dancing), physical health (increased strength, mobility, flexibility, and balance), mental well-being (reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression), and social well-being (developing connections with others through dance, making new friends, getting to know the instructor). The physical benefits of dance may be particularly crucial for those older adults with mobility issues who may be at a heightened risk of falls. While many communities offer dance programs, these may not account for or provide accommodations for individuals who are experiencing multiple medical comorbidities, including mobility challenges.

At the Sheridan Centre for Elder Research, we are currently conducting a research study in which community-dwelling older adults with mobility issues and at least two other medical comorbidities (e.g., high blood pressure, vision loss) are participating in 12 weeks of twice-weekly dance instruction. The sessions are led by a professionally-trained dance instructor, who has taken the time to understand each participant’s strengths and challenges, and makes specific accommodations for each of the dancers depending on their needs. We spoke with Pat Spadafora, the Director of the Sheridan Centre for Elder Research, who said that “the decision was made to hire a professionally-trained dancer in order to capitalize on the extensive repertoire of material from her own training and performances which she can draw upon for inspiration and instruction during the sessions. In addition, professionally-trained dancers understand the biomechanics and anatomy involved in dance, which results in these teachers being able to make a wide variety of accommodations for their participants.” These accommodations are necessary and welcome for our participants.

The dance instructor, Paula Skimin, reports that she has seen remarkable improvements in the participants over the course of the program, including improvements in balance, stability, and “developing a knowledge of their skeleton and skeletal structure, which allows for more stability.” She stated that, from a social perspective, the participants have become comfortable sharing with one another, and that many have cried during class when specific songs have touched them. She has worked to “create a safe space where people feel comfortable to express themselves and to share about their past, present, and future.”

At the end of the 12 weeks, the researcher will meet with each of the participants individually to discuss their perspective on the program. Many of them have already expressed a desire to continue with their dancing. We hope that, with new evidence to support the provision of dance training for individuals with multiple medical comorbidities, we will be able to offer similar programs in the future!

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Kate Dupuis is the new Schlegel Innovation Leader in Arts and Aging at Sheridan College. She studies how participation in the creative and performing arts can serve to enhance the wellbeing of older adults. In particular, Kate is interested in discovering the personal characteristics of individuals who are drawn to participate in the arts, and identifying the physical, psychological, social, and systemic barriers to participation.

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Arts and Aging: Enriching Communities Through the Performing Arts

There is extensive and robust evidence that engagement in meaningful activities, such as participation in the arts, contributes to a wide range of positive health outcomes including personal control, self-esteem, physical health, functional independence, cognitive function and lower mortality rates. Participation also reduces health inequalities, promotes independence and reduces reliance on health services and the cost of providing them.”
~ University of Alberta Research on Aging, Policies, and Practice

Engaging in the performing arts is one of the ways older adults can reap the associated benefits of active participation in creative expression.

Founded in 1978, Stagebridge is oldest theatre company “for and of seniors” in the United States. One of the many programs offered at Stagebridge provides opportunities to demonstrate “in action the many ways in which elders improve and enrich our culture and our communities”. Storybridge is an intergenerational experience using “specially trained elders” to engage at-risk local students through storytelling. To see the Storybridge program in action check out the video below:

Arts and Aging News

50_plus_festival2014_banner-subpagesCreative Aging in the News

In our last Arts and Aging blog we talked about famous artists who created new and exciting masterpieces in later life. Of course, it’s not just the masters who continue to thrive artistically as they age.

Meet Frieda Lefeber, who turned 100 last March. She celebrated becoming a centenarian with her first solo exhibition. According to an article on Philly.com Lefeber began attending art classes at age 76 and earned a certificate from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts at the age of 83. The article explains that she originally intended to get a bachelor’s degree “but she admitted, her tendency to fall asleep while sitting in the front row during art history lectures was a barrier. So instead, she graduated with a certificate”.

While working as a registered nurse, Lefeber cared for the famous American folk artist Grandma Moses who started her own painting career at 78. Coincidentally, it wasn’t until her late seventies when Lefeber became interested in painting.

Numerous studies have shown how participation in the creative arts and lifelong learning positively impact an older adults mental and physical well-being. So it comes as no surprise that Lefeber continues to be active by updating her published biography and learning to cook for her daughter and son-in-law.

New Music

Music is another artform in which people tend to thrive artistically as they age. Take Leonard Cohen for example, at age 80 he continues to produce his enticing blend of poetry and music with his latest live album ‘Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour’.

Upcoming Conferences and Events

National Centre for Creative Aging
The Creative Age: National Leadership Exchange and Conference
May 18-21, 2015
Washington, DC
“Join colleagues, peers, and key leaders in creative aging from across the nation and around the world for a dynamic constellation of events at this seminal gathering to explore the practice, the research, and the business of creative aging in America. Aligned with the 2015 White House Summit on Creativity and Aging the week will advance practice, foster national advocacy, and impact policy across the spectrum of creative aging.”

50+ Festival: Aging is Changing
June 1-4, 2015
Toronto, Ontario
“This year’s 50+ Festival at the Ryerson University Campus offers inspiring sessions that promote conversations about creative aging, reinvention, the business of aging and so much more. Join us as we celebrate new perspectives and approaches that will challenge your notions of living longer.”

ArtSage Midwest Arts & Aging Conference and Showcase
June 19, 2015
Chaska, Minnesota
“Join us for an arts-infused day of keynotes and workshops from national and regional leaders in the field of arts and aging! Learn how to build arts programming for older adults based on best practices in the field. Plus—an exhibitor fair and artist showcase with outstanding ArtSage-trained professional teaching artists, and the first-ever ArtSage Awards!”