Older people, especially those living in rural areas, are affected by their isolation. In Newfoundland and Labrador, 22% of residents are over 65. These seniors live in sparsely populated coastal communities or in the few more urban centers scattered across the province.
Social isolation and loneliness negatively influence the quality of life of older people. The rurality of NL threatens the ability of older people to engage with their peers, their community and the health system.
The combination of an aging population and the potential negative health effects caused by social isolation presented a problem that our team – made up of members of the Regional Health Authority, Western Regional School of Nursing, professionals. health and a local performing arts organization – aimed at address.
We designed opportunities for older people with mild to moderate frailty or cognitive decline to be socially connected by participating in artistic activities. The goal of our program was to prove that engagement in the arts can help these seniors maintain their cognitive health and improve their quality of life.
SmART Aging was a community-based virtual arts program offered by local professional artists in western Newfoundland. The program connected socially or geographically isolated older people with artists and other participants through online sessions showcasing a variety of expressive arts disciplines. Local artists developed engaging programming that specifically addressed the senior population.
Eight artist-led sessions were available using virtual technology, and seniors could participate in the comfort of their own homes at no cost. Art sessions ranged from letter writing to painting and drawing, as well as storytelling and acting skills. Participants could choose to attend a single session or complete all sessions.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the program has been affected in a variety of ways, including a delayed start, a change from the proposed mixed in-person and virtual format to a virtual-only format, and changes in the recruitment process. Initially, community health nurses identified eligible participants from their number of existing cases. However, due to the impacts of the pandemic, the recruitment process has shifted to public promotion and self-referral.
To measure the effectiveness of the program, the project team offered participants an anonymous survey asking them to provide feedback on their experience and satisfaction with the program. Virtual focus groups were also held at the end of the sessions with the project team and artists to assess the program and identify strengths, opportunities for improvement and the overall sustainability of offering a program similar to the ‘to come up. The distance that customers would have had to travel for this program if virtual access was not available was also tracked.
Feedback from participants and artists confirmed that the program was successful in engaging participants and improving their quality of life. Participants enjoyed the sessions, interacted with others and felt included in the art sessions. Participants were interested in attending future sessions and 90 percent would recommend the program to family and friends. Comments from a participant reflect the success of the program:
“The artist was fantastic. I felt very relaxed once we started. And it was so nice to see the other women and men on the screen. It was like having company in my house: but I didn’t have to clean!
Feedback from artists was also very positive, with all artists interviewed having received feedback from participants indicating that they were involved in the sessions and appreciated it. The results support further program offerings and possible program expansion. An artist wrote:
“I am grateful for the courage of the participants who embarked on something new! I was amazed to see and feel a shift from “chaos” to “calm” on the part of the participants after we had settled into the activities and a feeling of “confidence” at the end. It was great when attendees could share their audio and video so that we could connect directly that way. “
Reduce social isolation
Although the pandemic has changed both program delivery and recruitment, and reduced expected participation, the program has been generally successful. Even the small number of participants represented a significant impact on the time and travel costs saved.
Collectively, participants would have had to travel 3,836 kilometers (round trip) if they had attended the in-person art sessions. It is the hope that artistic projects like this will continue to be explored as an option to improve the social isolation of the elderly and positively benefit health.