Under the Lee Li Ming Programme for Ageing Urbanism, we have been researching the changing housing and recreational needs of the elderly in Singapore, focusing on the area of Bukit Panjang, in the north side of the city-state. Through this research, we identified the need to dive deeper into the recreational component of how people age and how this component affects their health, well-being, happiness and overall quality of life.

As such, we recently began a new project looking at the impact of visual arts participation on the elderly. In starting up this research, we spent some time looking into tangential forms of arts and culture that the elderly partake in, as inspiration for our study design.

Horticultural therapy was one area of interest, as there have been many studies in Singapore on horticultural therapy and its effects on the elderly. Horticultural therapy involves visiting green spaces and joining guided group gardening activities, whereby the gardening activities are tailored towards specific physical and psychological needs of the individual. For example, a goal to improve motor skills might involve simple gardening activities such as watering, weeding, trimming and potting. Findings so far have indicated that senior participants experience improved psychological well-being, report higher life satisfaction and feel more socially connected. The Therapeutic Garden @ HortPark in Singapore in particular was a pioneer in the field of horticultural therapy. Designed in consultation with medical professionals and based on research in environmental psychology, the Garden comprises a Restorative Zone and an Activities Zone. Both zones serve to improve the mental well-being of all visitors, including those with dementia or those who have suffered a stroke. NParks is also working with the Alzheimer’s Disease Association to develop and offer customised therapeutic programmes at the Garden.

Photography has also come up frequently in our review of arts participation by the elderly, and research has shown that there are cognitive benefits for older people who take up photography. The sustained mental challenge from continuously working to improve skills in the craft may enhance memory function and visuospatial processing, while the act of taking and sharing photos with others, such as on social media sites, may promote mental health and well-being through keeping older people connected with others.

There are several great examples of how photography is being encouraged in the elderly population. Here at home in Singapore, Curating Whampoa is one such project. Launched in December 2016 by the Tsao Foundation, Curating Whampoa is a two-year community art and heritage series which seeks to empower senior residents in the neighbourhood by encouraging them to share their personal histories and stories. Photo voice: Everyday Whampoa, which was organised in collaboration with Photovoice SG, was a five week course for 12 senior residents. They received lessons on basic camera skills and were subsequently paired with volunteers who mentored them as they photographed their neighbourhood. At the end of the project, each participating resident submitted a series of photographs narrating their individual stories of Whampoa. The Seniors Exploring Photography, Identity and Appreciation (SEPIA) project in San Diego was also an inspiring project. SEPIA is a dedicated programme to promote older persons’ engagement with the arts, and offers digital photography courses, arts presentations for the elderly in long-term care facilities, and museum tours focused on the elderly population, including those living with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

We also explored the topic of digital literacy in older Singaporeans – not only to enable their participation in the nation’s drive to become a Smart Nation, but for its cognitive benefits. For instance, a landmark study published in 2014 by the University of Exeter (UK) showed multiple, positive mental health and well-being outcomes when older people were taught how to use social media. Participants, who were vulnerable older adults aged 60 to 95, gained an enhanced sense of self-competence and personal identity, increased socialisation, and improved cognitive capacity. There have been several initiatives that have been designed to support these benefits, including the Seniors for Smart Nation course, whereby social media tools, online communication, and basic computing skills are taught at 50 community clubs across the country. The Silver Infocomm Initiative has taken this a step further to provide nine learning hubs, called Silver Infocomm Junctions, that are senior-friendly spaces to provide training on infocomm skills, from basic computing skills to lifestyle skills, such as online shopping, e-travel, government e-services and internet banking. They also learn about digital photo/video management, e-entertainment, blogging and navigation.

There are several other examples of how Singapore and cities across the world have worked to engage their elderly population in arts and culture, and the field is ripe for more empirical review of the psychosocial impacts of these activities on the elderly. If you’re interested in the topic, you may want to check out this series of web posts, which provide more detail about the programmes above, as well as other programmes from around the world.

– Penny Kong, Research Assistant