Art and dance modified to suit needs of elderly

Creating an artwork or doing a dance routine for the first time can be daunting for those who are in their silver years.

Also, many elderly people at community care organisations have had a stroke or orthopaedic problems, which can impair their mobility. Some have dementia as well.

Even so, studies suggest that art and dance could benefit them. The issue is coming up with a suitable syllabus that incorporates elements of art and dance.

For artist and arts educator Foo Kwee Horng, the key is not to worry too much about technical or aesthetic outcomes - so "people without an art training background find the task do-able", he said.

Mr Foo led the development of the visual arts curriculum for the wellness programme at the Agency for Integrated Care (AIC).

It was his first foray into using visual arts techniques to work with the elderly, although he had been teaching art for 15 years.

The curriculum was based on a toolkit book that he developed with the National Arts Council (NAC) in 2012. That was meant for a general audience, so he held sessions at a nursing home and worked with both AIC and NAC to modify it to suit the elderly.

Healthcare professionals such as occupational therapists were also consulted. The result was a less sophisticated range of activities that use affordable art supplies, including straws, recycled plastic bottles or even leaves from the garden.

"With simple, familiar art activities and easy-to-obtain equipment and materials, starting the programme wasn't hard," Mr Foo said.

The dance-based creative movement curriculum was developed by a team led by Ms Angela Liong, the artistic director of a professional dance company.

It features themes that elderly people can relate to, such as food or objects commonly found at home. These form the basis of movements they can perform to music.

Nursing home residents are often frail, said Ms Liong, so some complex sequences had to be adjusted and slower-paced music selected .

Still, the activity should not just be about "watch and follow the leader", she said. Participants should be able to form a rapport with the facilitators.

"We have to inject some talking at an appropriate time, and not be totally quiet," she said. "Make eye contact, talk to every participant, and let the class pause for someone to share his or her experience."

There are logistical issues to consider too, because many participants are in wheelchairs. Extra time might have to be set aside during a session for staff to move them to the venue, Ms Liong noted.

Training sessions for both activities are available for healthcare staff. This gives them the confidence to facilitate the activities on their own, as well as make modifications to suit their charges.

For instance, Ms Abegail Gumarao, an occupational therapist at Ling Kwang Home for Senior Citizens, tells those taking part in visual arts activities to use their fingers to paint if they have trouble holding a paintbrush.

Conversely, if an activity looks too simple, she suggests ways to make it more complex - for example, in dot-painting, chopsticks can be used instead of fingers.

"The paint has to be non-toxic too, as some dementia patients might think it's fruit juice and try to drink it," she pointed out.

Poon Chian Hui

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 22, 2015, with the headline 'Art and dance modified to suit needs of elderly'. Print Edition | Subscribe