Sheridan College, one of Ontario’s leading post-secondary institutions, recognized that they had a role to play in contributing to applied research into issues affecting older Canadians. In 2003, they established the Centre for Elder Research with a goal of enhancing the quality of life of older adults and their families.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Centre’s research shows a positive relationship between participation in the creative and performing arts and healthy aging. As a health promotion strategy, arts programs get a standing ovation. The physical and psychosocial benefits people gain include increased fitness, life satisfaction, and self-confidence. And, when older adults are engaged in the arts, they tend to be more likely to stick with it than other forms of exercise. As an example, a group of women who participated in a dance study at the Centre in 2010 are still dancing.

“We know that the confidence seniors gain from being engaged in the arts is critically important, because they are more likely to engage in other activities,” says Pat Spadafora, the Centre’s director. “There are the physical benefits from some arts forms, but we also know that social isolation and loneliness can be hugely detrimental to one’s health. Engagement in the arts can contribute to social inclusion.”

Gillian Saunders, Dance Discipline Head, Music Theatre — Performance, at Sheridan, says the fundamental element of dance that appeals to everyone is the music. “By using different types of music, participants have an immediate response,” she says. “This begins to develop the social connection, and eventually leads to improved self-esteem and a sense of inclusiveness, all of which contribute to overall health."

Preventing falls and other health concerns

It has been demonstrated that many older adults who participate in dance and other artistic activity see positive gains in their flexibility, balance, and range of motion. “Falls are a significant concern for older adults,” says Spadafora. “If, through the arts, we can improve balance and help to prevent falls and other health issues, then that’s a good thing.”

Spadafora believes that when people are inactive, it may mean we haven’t found the right key to unlock their interest, suggesting we need to create more opportunities so that people have choice. Maybe for some it isn’t dance, but woodworking, or sculpting, or writing, instead. The Centre is currently working on a project that bridges art and technology, so people who may not be able to get into a site can still participate in these programs.