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The Arts and Wellbeing: Art and Successful Aging

What are some of the benefits of renting art from the Canada Council Art Bank? Our Arts and Wellbeing series looks at how the presence of art can have a positive impact on our lives—in the workplace and beyond.

In recent years, the term “successful aging” has been widely used by those working with elderly individuals. How can successful aging be achieved? Research indicates activity and meaningful participation in social life seem to contribute the most—and the visual arts may have a vital role to play.

A team of researchers in Sweden wanted to examine whether the visual arts could be used to foster social interactions amongst older women and lead them out of isolation. The study¹ was conducted with 40 women living in a facility for semi-independent seniors. The average age of the participants was 82.6. The group was matched to a control group of women with similar profiles. The participants noted and reported all of their social activities, interactions and habits, including watching television alone, before, during and after the study.

Researchers spent time with the participants looking at art and asked the women to describe the paintings, to pretend they were the artists and give some insight or make associations such as memories, feelings or thoughts. Researchers used 84 reproductions of well-known paintings by artists such as Klee, Monet, and van Gogh. The control group spent the same time with the researchers, but discussed current topics, programs on television and the hobbies of the women.

Claude Monet, Les Nymphéas (1904) from the Musée d’art moderne André Malraux in Le Havre, France

The researchers found an increase in social interaction in the group that took part in the visual art discussions compared to no increase in the control group. The effect continued for four months after the end of the art discussions. The researchers do not understand which aspects of visual arts stimulate a desire for more social interaction in older women, but they suspect it has to do with reminiscence—which, in older adults, has been proven to be a healthy way to process the past and adapt to actual and anticipated changes in life.

Do you have a workplace where older adults could benefit from the presence of art? Contact the Art Bank to discuss how you can bring works from the collection into your space.

Molly Bobak, Shediac Beach (N.B.) (1972)

Alex Colville, Running Dog (1968)

William Kurelek, A Roofing Bee (1976)

About the Author: Sonia Poisson
Sonia Poisson is a lecturer and freelance researcher specialising in the anthropology of art. She received an M.A. in Visual Anthropology from Goldsmiths College, University of London and an M.A. in Art History from Carleton University. She works on various historical and arts-related projects for television, documentaries and museum exhibitions.


¹Wikström, B. -M, Hälsohögskolan, Högskolan i Jönköping, and Avd för omvårdnad HHJ. “Social Interaction Associated with Visual Art Discussions: A Controlled Intervention Study.” Aging & Mental Health 6, no. 1 (2002): 82-87.

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