Community-engaged arts for older people: Fostering social inclusion

Moody, E. & Phinney, A. (2012). Community-engaged arts for older people: Fostering social inclusion. Canadian Journal on Aging, 31(3), pp. 55-64.

Abstract:

This ethnographic study explores how communities can be more inclusive and supportive of seniors, specifically through the role of a community-engaged arts program, Arts, Health and Seniors (AHS), developed in Vancouver, Canada. The researchers gathered data about the program as participant observers, conducted informal interviews with program participants, and reviewed documents relevant to the community where the program took place. Approximately 20 seniors participated in the program that met for two and a half hours once a week from September 2007 to June 2008. The study found that the AHS program helped seniors deepen their engagement in the arts and their social interactions and fostered intergenerational connections and connections with professional and amateur artists. Seniors also developed meaningful roles within their community through the process of collaborating in a group exhibition at the culmination of the program.

Key Findings:

  • The Arts, Health and Seniors (AHS) program enabled participants to connect to community and to each other in new ways that discouraged isolationism and built community.
  • A public exhibit of the seniors’ work was held downtown in a busy community centre and gave the seniors the ability to engage with the community in a public space.
  • Collaborating on an art project with a class of third graders allowed the seniors to be active in shifting both their and the children’s perceptions about aging.
  • Seniors were more likely to self identify as artists and to include themselves in the local artist community as a result of participating in the AHS program.
  • Seniors were active participants in the decisions about what art they would create, thus taking ownership in the AHS program.
  • Seniors developed skills in creative collaboration when working together to create their final exhibition.
  • Seniors who chose not to participate in the making of an art piece were still engaged in the group providing moral support and social company for the artists.

Significance of the Findings:

The AHS program contributed to a positive identity shift for participating seniors from vulnerable and isolated to collaborators that were part of an artistic community. The program also created a space for seniors to actively change perceptions about aging and provided them with a sense of self-worth. The artwork increased the senior’s level of social visibility in the larger community, thus giving them a sense of place and a rich social network with their peers.

Methodology:

The principal investigator was a participant observer during the weekly AHS meetings by helping the artists, observing the group, and speaking informally with the participants and staff. She kept a detailed field journal for every two and a half hour meeting from September 2007 to June 2008. The research team also conducted nine interviews with five participating seniors, two artists, and two staff members. The interviews were loosely structured in order to explore the topics important to the interviewees in depth. Finally, the research team collected and examined data from public demographic reports that would contribute to their knowledge of the seniors’ social context. Through a concurrent analysis done by repeatedly reading and coding the collected data, the research team developed a thematic description of the seniors’ experiences. The findings were reviewed by experts and informally checked by the participating seniors.

Limitations of the Research:

The sample size was small, only approximately 20 participants, only one of whom was a man. The participants were mostly English-speakers of European decent. The amount of time in the actual community was also limited as the group only met once a week from September 2007 to June 2008 for two and a half hours. The research team only mentioned the type of art activities and instruction, but included very little detail.

Questions to Guide New Research:

How do intergenerational arts-programs change perceptions of aging? Will engagement in the arts increase longevity for seniors?