Age and Creation

A practice journal of creative experience and aging

Five Essential Lessons

Maggie Perquin and Kathy Smith, Older Adult Community Consultants

This article is adapted from a lunch and learn presentation that Maggie and Kathy developed and delivered as a series to seniors-serving organizations during 2023.

 

We have spent the last three years engaging with older adults in the Hamilton, Guelph and London areas, to research how technology can help engage them in art activities in meaningful and successful ways.

Most older adults use some form of digital device on a daily basis, and will learn the skills they need in order to participate in meaningful art activities.

We’d like to share five key findings from this research and our recommendations to artist-run centres and other cultural organizations that seek to serve older adults.

 

1. The arts can reduce isolation and loneliness experienced by older adults

We spoke with older adults about the value of art in their lives and how they use and interact with technology to access art activities and events. We heard of the difficulty older adults had during the pandemic as everything went online and they had to use technology to continue to participate in group activities they valued. Art, in particular, presented a unique set of barriers compared to more passive group activities.

When an older adult can’t go out to pursue their interests in-person because of a pandemic, health concerns, transportation, budget, or any other reason, technology that effectively facilitates engagement in the arts can also have positive effects on mental and physical health.

Apply this in your organization:

  • Recognize that the social aspects of arts programming can provide something important to an older adult who is feeling isolated.
  • Consider how socializing in person is different than socializing online, and look for ways to facilitate more social connection in online programming

 

Seniors are motivated by interactions that focus on skill-building and building social connections

Seniors explained that watching tutorials on YouTube wasn’t enough during the pandemic to replace group-based in-person artistic engagement they’d lost. People wanted to see and chat with others while they were learning.

Apply this in your organization:

  • These needs can be met through virtual galleries, user-to-user content sharing, curated resources on skill-building and arts access, and video-based interaction with pared-down set-up and control interfaces.

 

Online arts content needs to be simple to understand and accessible with basic digital literacy and equipment

Technical frustrations will make some seniors tune out and not come back. To close the gap between older adults being thrown into technology and artists who were proficient on tools like Zoom, we created video tutorials. They help seniors learn to use a new device, or use a familiar device for new purposes.

We also created a prototype of a simple hardware keyboard that would allow users to access art activities easily on a dedicated website. When testing it we found that, for the older adults we engaged, most folks had learned the skills necessary to use existing technology more successfully, but were excited to find a dedicated platform for art activities.

Seniors spoke of different barriers they faced that prevented them from accessing technology and tech-facilitated artistic experiences. These varied by participant, and included comfort, confidence, skill, energy, ability, cost, geography, discrimination, interest, and availability.

When creating programs these barriers must be considered in order to empower older adults to attend events that foster their well being and need for social connection. What is essential for some is good for all.

Apply this in your organization:

  • Aim for “low tech, high engagement” when developing technology platforms to cater to seniors
  • Understand the devices and applications that seniors are currently using, and help people build new skills with them
  • Include ways to speak and connect with others while learning art skills
  • Identify barriers to access that seniors face, and remove them

 

Seniors that are motivated to join an online arts-based activity will find a way to do so

As pandemic-era restrictions expanded and continued, older adults became as technically proficient as they needed to be to join different groups or classes that were suddenly only available through Zoom.

Once they did, they recognized new benefits. As restrictions eased and groups started moving back to in-person meetings many older adults were hesitant to switch and preferred virtual gatherings. COVID-19 and health concerns, weather and travel concerns, and the barriers to access mentioned in the last point all variously contribute to this preference.

Apply this in your organization:

  • Provide a program that meets the needs of older adults and they will learn what is required to be there. Technology can turn from barrier to strength in the right situation.
  • Don’t do away with all online programming just because some people are ready to do everything in-person.

 

Seniors look to the arts as ways of maintaining their well-being with social contacts and learning that is fun and meaningful

In interviews it was clear that older adult participants used art activity that had a social gathering component as a big part of maintaining their well-being.

This research project made it obvious that there is a vital need among older community members for more digital creative programming that is accessible and inclusive.

Apply this in your organization:

  • Continue to offer and expand programs, resources, and activities that will contribute to the well-being of your community’s aging populations

Kathy Smith is an artist and instructor. Maggie Perquin is a retired teacher and choir director of the Forest City Singers. Both are from London, Ontario and were community consultants for the direct[message] project. Both were Community Consultants for the direct[message] project.