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Making art together improves the lives of seniors: study

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The Jewish General Hospital-based Centre for Excellence on Longevity has quantified the benefits of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ workshops for seniors. (McGill Centre for Excellence on Longevity, 2018 photo)

An innovative art program for seniors at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) is having a measurable, positive impact on participants’ well-being, quality of life and, in some cases, health, according to researchers with the Jewish General Hospital (JGH).

The McGill Centre of Excellence on Longevity (MCEL), which is based at the JGH, released the findings of its almost yearlong clinical study of 150 people who regularly go to this weekly group activity. Free of charge, the program is open to anyone in reasonable health who’s over 65 and living independently.

“The observed health benefits surpassed the expectations of those involved in the study,” said chief researcher Olivier Beauchet, director of the MCEL and a professor of geriatrics at McGill University.

The study participants enrolled in one of two three-month sessions between January and June. The two-hour workshops ranged from drawing a live model, to assembling a mini-fanzine, to painting on stained glass, all under the guidance of art therapists.

The participants’ well-being and quality of life was assessed using two standardized international measures. Participants filled out a total of 18 questionnaires, in which they evaluated their sense of well-being, quality of life and health over the three months.

They ranged in age from 65 to 94, with an average age of 71.6.

The Jewish General Hospital in Montreal. (Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose/CC BY-SA 2.0)

While art therapy has long been used in hospitals and long-term care institutions and has been observably beneficial, no scientific analysis has been made of the effect that hands-on participatory creativity has on older autonomous adults, said Beauchet.

He and his team wanted to know if making art, specifically when it is accompanied by a social component and takes place within a museum, can contribute to a longer, happier and healthier life. Or, at least, play a role in the prevention or delay of the decline associating with aging.

The MMFA is the first museum in Canada to have set aside physical space dedicated to art and health programs. In January 2017, it set up a scientific advisory committee to see if the initiative was justified. Les beaux jeudis, the seniors’ program, is one of about a dozen art and health projects at the museum.

Since its inception three years ago, more than 14,000 people have taken part in Les beaux jeudis.

“I’m convinced that art is good for you and that we can prove it scientifically,” said MMFA director general and chief curator Natalie Bondil.

In addition to making art, the seniors’ program includes free visits to the collections, guided tours, dance and yoga.

READ: PROGRAM ALLOWS SENIORS TO ENJOY RETIREMENT IN ISRAEL

For the study, each participant’s physical health, mental health and living conditions were evaluated beforehand.

The results indicated that well-being increased after each workshop, but the degree of improvement remained unchanged over the three-month session. In other words, no cumulative effect was observed.

On the other hand, quality of life improved gradually but steadily throughout the three months.

The biggest health benefits accrued to those who were frail. Most significantly, 27 per cent of those who were assessed as mildly frail at the outset were upgraded to “vigorous” by the end of the program.

In the coming year, the MCEL will launch a large international study in collaboration with more than 10 research institutions that have partnerships with museums in Canada and the United States, as well as eight other countries, including Israel.

“In the end, we hope many museums will replicate the MMFA’s initiative, because this innovative concept could benefit older people around the world,” said Beauchet. “We can conclude already that museums have a role to play in public health policy, particularly in the West, where the population is aging.”

Bram Freedman, president and CEO of the Jewish General Hospital Foundation, which helped fund the study, hailed the fact that, “hospital and museum – science and art – have come together to serve health and well-being.”