Finding the science behind the arts

When it comes to art, whether it’s singing, dancing, painting in a class, or story-telling, age is no barrier to creativity. By participating in the arts, older adults make new friends, rediscover the essence of who they are and find they still have much to contribute. They also report an easing of their pain, an elevation in their mood, and an improvement in their self-awareness and self-esteem.

However, there’s a shortage of scientific evidence that participation in the arts measurably improves the mood and cognitive (brain) health of older adults. To help address this gap in the research, Baycrest has partnered with The Royal Conservatory of Music on a controlled study titled, “Exploring the impact of artful engagement with older adults.”

According to study coordinator Melissa Tafler, a social worker at Baycrest, “If we want to see arts become an intervention that is understood and incorporated in the same way as other health sciences interventions, we need to hold it to the same standard as other research.”

With the help of a grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, the study is currently underway. Most participants, ranging in age from 75 to 85, are assigned to work on either a story-telling or a creative movement project. The remaining participants are assigned to the control group. Participants in all groups are assessed before the study begins and again, at the end.

The research team involves several researchers – from Baycrest, the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute and The Royal Conservatory.

Measuring the benefits of the arts scientifically

According to cognitive psychologist Dr. Nicole Anderson, senior scientist at Baycrest, the two art forms (story-telling/creative writing vs. creative movement) are being compared. For example, does participation in these activities decrease feelings of depression and loneliness? Is there improvement in one’s ability to multi-task? Other measures will be specific to the particular art form, for example, will the story-telling/creative writing group show improved language abilities and memory for verbal information?

“We are always looking for ways to maintain the brain health of older adults. If we could show that arts’ intervention is one good way of doing that that would be fantastic,” she says.

Dr. Takako Fujioka, a neuroscientist in the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest, will investigate motor control, visual-motor coordination, and music perception in the participants of the creative movement group. “We all know that artistic activities make our lives richer. We now have the means to measure that benefit in a concrete and quantified way.”

Results for both groups will be compared to see whether either art form offers more benefit. The findings will also be compared to the control group.

Participants have already reported benefits

One participant noted that the program focuses on her strengths rather than deficits and that she is doing things she didn’t realize she could do. Another participant reported that the program has made her feel more confident and allowed her to use her imagination. Several reported that they are enjoying the engagement with others.

According to Bianca Stern, who is leading the integration of arts and healthcare at Baycrest, “What makes this study unique is that we are taking our knowledge around brain and cognition and the importance of keeping the brain fit, and linking it to our exploration of the art-making experience and its meaning and purpose for participants. If results show that expressing themselves creatively has made participants healthier, more socially engaged and more confident, we want to share that information not just with our own community, but with the wider world. We hope to be able to support the development of these kinds of arts-based programs in other nursing homes and in the community.”

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