In 2005, the first Canadian forum on arts and health was held in Vancouver. Discussion about Dr. Gene Cohen’s ground-breaking study on creativity and aging, inspired forum participants from Vancouver Coastal Health and the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation. A partnership was born as a trio of individuals with expertise in public health, recreation and the arts looked at the existing gaps between the supports available for well seniors in recreation facilities and those for very frail seniors within the health care system. We were also concerned about the gaps between the arts, culture and recreation fields and recognized the need for a new generation of programming that would meet the various needs and expectations of a growing seniors’ population.
We did not envision the project as solely an opportunity to develop a program. We also viewed it as an opportunity to promote systemic change. We were confident that a well-developed program would work. We wanted to demonstrate:
- What the arts have to offer the field of recreation
- What the arts have to contribute to health and well being
- How arts are considered in relation to communities
- How seniors can engage in serious artistic endeavors – even if they never have in the past
- And finally how seniors are considered in relation to their communities.
Quantitative Research Study
As we planned to document and demonstrate the value of this work, we developed a partnership with UBC school of Nursing who undertook a 3-year quantitative research study into the health impacts of participating in the programming, specifically looking at physical and mental health as well as social connections. The Research Report was released in 2012, confirming that a significant number of participants experienced improvements in their perceived (self-reported) health, a reduction in their experience of chronic pain and an increased sense of community.
The quantitative research process was complicated, however, by the challenges of getting enough sustained funding and by the seniors themselves who, while committed to the program and happy to tell us why, actively disliked the standardized questionnaires and the questions that they said were intrusive and didn’t capture the point of their participation.
Despite these challenges the initiative has continued to garner much research interest and to date there have been three PhDs written on the Project, three Masters Theses, and one Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Postdoctoral Fellowship is currently underway.
Presently we are continuing to develop our programming and expand on the collaborations between the artists and the seniors and their communities. We are identifying and working with different populations of seniors such as urban and on reserve aboriginal elders, and mixing immigrant senior’s groups.
The initiative has now moved from the original model of ongoing support for a few specific project sites, to providing tenured deeper and richer support for new sites as well as wider engagement for seniors in BC. And, we are committed to sharing the information of what we have learned with others who are interested in developing similar or related programming with professional development workshops and on–line research tools, available on our website.