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An app for the arts: Sheridan researcher and professor uses visual arts to reduce social isolation among older adults

Newsroom authorby Olivia McLeodOct 2, 2023

Dr. Kate Dupuis

As the Schlegel Innovation Leader in Arts and Aging at Sheridan’s Centre for Elder Research (CER), as well as a professor in the Faculty of Applied Health and Community Studies (FAHCS), Dr. Kate Dupuis blends research with her passion for the arts to explore why creative pursuits are so important for our overall health—especially as we age.

“I’ve always loved the arts. I was always the kid going to musicals and to the ballet. I played the piano until it became too much to juggle with university coursework,” she remembers. “As a psychologist who specializes in working with older adults, the arts seem like a logical way to help foster social connections and improve psychological well-being in this population. In my work, I explore why people want to engage in the arts and how we can use arts, creativity, and self-expression to further benefit their health.”

Dupuis’ latest project, which comes with the help of generous funding from the Retired Teachers of Ontario Foundation (RTOERO), aims to enable more Canadians access to virtual visual art-making opportunities. Together with community partner Artfull Enrichment, a Hamilton-based organization that provides online art programs for seniors, Dupuis and Artfull founder Cailey Massey are working to understand what those over 55 are looking for in virtual artistic content, and how to incorporate that into an Artfull app for mobile devices.

The inception for this project came from an increased desire for many Canadians to connect through the arts during the early days of COVID-19. To continue those positive health and well-being benefits, Dupuis and Massey decided to join forces and create an online resource where those over the age of 55 will be able to access a library of pre-recorded programming and art history education, in addition to synchronous instruction and socializing, to pursue at their own pace.

“Cailey and I have known each other since 2017… and we’ve always been looking for an opportunity to collaborate,” Dupuis says. “The need for her programming really grew over the pandemic and by virtue of this funding from RTOERO Foundation, as well as the collaboration between Artfull and Sheridan, we will be able to expand opportunities in the arts for older adults.”

“Thanks to generous funding from the RTOERO Foundation, the Centre for Elder Research is able to work with, and help expand, a small, local entrepreneur’s business, as well as provide innovative work experience for our students.”

– Dr. Kate Dupuis

Currently, Artfull’s programming is mostly geared towards older individuals who receive support from care partners. Dupuis says the app’s goal is to bring the positive influence of art and community to more adults over the age of 55, an age bracket she says is of particular focus when it comes to creative endeavours. This is the type of work Sheridan’s Centre for Elder Research (CER) focuses on. Recently celebrating its 20th anniversary as one of Sheridan’s Research and Entrepreneurship Centres, the CER continues to develop innovative approaches and conduct necessary research into relevant areas of concern for older adults.

“We want to encourage everyone to have access to the arts. With the rapid way technology has increased in recent years, we are able to make these opportunities more inclusive, as well as accessible,” Dupuis explains. “Especially now, as we know that many older individuals are really struggling financially in terms of housing and food insecurity. We want to help them reap the many health benefits of social interaction through creative endeavours.”

The app, which is slated to be completed by next summer, will include Artfull’s directory of video tutorials and step-by step project guides that members can choose from to create their masterpieces. It will also feature an online community hub, where members can share photos of their artistic progress and connect with others in their age demographic across the country.

Dupuis says the app’s resources will be directly informed by the needs of the older adult population. Earlier this year, the project kicked off with a mass survey to assess that group’s artistic needs and found evidence that echoed the feedback Artfull received during the pandemic: the opportunity for virtual engagement in the arts was beneficial to people’s health and well-being, particularly their mood when it came to feeling socially isolated and lonely. Using these responses as a guideline, Dupuis and Massey have crafted the next phase of the project.

Box of art supplies including paints, coloured pencils and tapeBeginning in October, 40 individuals will receive three months of programming, along with free visual art-making kits. Using Artfull’s already established website, participants will draw, paint and craft, following along with Massey’s guided instruction as often as they like, but at a minimum of twice per month. A Facebook group will give them a chance to check in with each other, and Dupuis and her team will be in touch every month with surveys to track qualitative and quantitative feedback.

At the end of the three months, participants will fill out a final survey which will largely influence the making of the Artfull app. The CER will tap into the expertise of Sheridan students to help develop and market a pilot version of the app. The app will first be tested by a focus group at the CER, as well as with a new group of 40 project participants over a three-month time span in early 2024.

“Thanks to generous funding from the RTOERO Foundation, the Centre for Elder Research is able to work with, and help expand, a small, local entrepreneur’s business, as well as provide innovative work experience for our students,” Dupuis says. “We were thrilled to receive this much support from RTOERO Foundation to get the project off the ground and thriving in a relatively short period of time.”

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