The Orillia and District Arts Council (ODAC) has married dance, visual art, and art history in a comprehensive new arts program created specifically for local seniors.
The HeARTS (Helping Elders with ARTS) program is held every Tuesday and Thursday at St. James' Anglican Church; the goal is to get participants’ bodies moving before trying their hand at various disciplines of art.
The 26-week program began in September after ODAC secured federal government funding earlier this year, and each lesson includes a dance component, supplementary lectures on the session’s artistic theme, and — of course — the opportunity to create art.
Organizers offer a wide-ranging variety of programming and artistic styles for the participants to learn about, ranging from Picasso-inspired self portraits, to re-creations of Vincent Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’, Japanese Suminigashi marbling, and more.
An “intelligent” approach was brought to the program, organizers say, adding they hope to give seniors legitimate opportunities to explore their artistic sides, as well as the opportunity to self-reflect.
“It (isn’t) juvenile, like arts and crafts. We wanted to do something intelligent and fresh, and have something that seniors could be excited to come to weekly,” said HeARTS art facilitator Sukhi Kaur.
“They're taken on a journey of self-reflection that they get to explore through different art techniques, and different artists and activities,” Kaur said. “By the end, they'll hopefully create a small body of work that represents their time here, as well as connecting to the memories that the art prompts are supposed to bring up, and they have the opportunity to share that with new people.”
Each session’s programming is designed to tie into a specific theme, Kaur said, noting those themes are guided by participant feedback. For example, a dance session based in mirroring was included with a lecture on Picasso before participants painted their own self portraits.
A variety of guest artists — and even a harp player during the Vincent Van Gogh session — have been brought to the program to enrich its sessions.
Above all, however, the program offers the opportunity for seniors to have fun and socialize.
“We were hoping that it would be an opportunity post-COVID for seniors to socialize,” Kaur said. “They come here for art, and they come here for dance, but they get to talk about their week. There's been some new friendships made here that I've got to watch flourish over the weeks.”
The idea is catching on.
“Our board made a decision some time back that we wanted to be more socially involved with vulnerable or underrepresented groups, and we thought seniors would be a good fit,” said ODAC board secretary Christine Hager.
“It was a slow start … but now it's catching people by word of mouth. They are telling other people what's going on here, and they're having a lot of fun — that's the main thing.”
So far, the program has been a success, with one participant celebrating it as “an amazing get together for seniors” that got her out of a rut through COVID-19.
“It gives us something to look forward to, shows us our cognitive abilities, and motivates us to do better than we thought we could do,” said Donna Howlett.
“I love the dance class — just hearing the music has brought me back to my childhood, and the art class is so interesting. I did not know that I had some talent there,” said Maryann Van Arem.
Miriam Goldberger, the program's dance instructor, said she enthusiastically joined the program when she learned it would incorporate multiple styles of art, and highlighted the importance of movement for both physical health and creating the right mindset to engage with art.
“Movement and physical activity prevent serious physical and mental and emotional decline of seniors,” she explained. “It also really lubricates all the creativity and the social goals that happen with the other part of the program.”
“They're relaxed, they're comfortable with themselves, they're feeling positive,” she said. “They're open to new things.”
Beyond offering arts programming to seniors, the HeARTS program also serves as a placement opportunity for Georgian College Social Service Worker students.
Program volunteer Joan Berndt said the addition of these students is “incredibly beneficial” to breaking down stigma surrounding seniors.
“The addition of social work students is incredibly beneficial because they don't get frontline experience when they're in school,” Berndt said. “They learn about seniors, (and) there is a discrimination in some younger people, that they don't want to work for seniors, but they're meeting some fabulous seniors, and it's working.”
The HeARTS program is offered to local seniors free of charge. It takes place at St. James' Anglican Church, every Tuesday and Thursday, with a drop-in session from 11 a.m. to 12:45 p.m., with dance and arts programming taking place from 1 p.m. to 3:45 p.m.
Organizers are hoping to secure funding to continue the program following its current 26-week run.