Prescribing art

Healthcare workers in Sydney are prescribing art classes instead of medication to improve healthy ageing.

Stressed? Depressed? Lonely? Imagine that instead of writing you a prescription for medication your doctor prescribed an art class. That’s exactly what’s happening in Sydney in a new project based on research that shows participating in the arts is good for your health. In an Australian first, Arts on Prescription encourages healthcare workers to refer patients aged 65 and over to art classes as an antidote to stress, anxiety, bereavement and even chronic pain.

Once someone is referred to the program by a healthcare practitioner they join a small group of 6 to 8 others to undertake a 10 week, 2 hour class together with a professional artist as their teacher to promote healthy and active ageing. Some classes like music, drama and dance focus on improving physical fitness including balance and strength. Others like photography, painting and writing offer psychological benefits that come from self expression, exploring creativity, learning new skills and opportunities to socialise.

‘I am inspired by the participants. With age comes wisdom and experience and their stories and the life experiences they bring to classes have really enriched my life. We are all learning from each other and it’s a really wonderful thing.’ Annette Innis, artist and teacher.

Starting small builds confidence

One of the teachers in the Arts on Prescription program, artist Annette Innis, who teaches drawing, painting and mixed media, says that for people who are unsure or shy it often only takes that first step. ‘Once they get their foot in the door they often surprise themselves and their confidence increases and they are more willing to try other art forms such as music, drama or poetry.

‘Many are nervous but we create a welcoming atmosphere where everyone feels confident. We make a real effort inhelping people to get to know one another and to have fun. ‘It’s really hard to be a beginner at something. It’s brave to experiment creatively especially with a group of strangers. So we keep it lighthearted, we set the tone, we allow people the time and space to relax.

‘Classes are free so there’s almost nothing to lose and no reason not to give it a go. A lot of people have the curiosity but have not had the opportunity to explore their creative side. Having access to all the materials makes the classes even more inviting,’ Annette says.

‘When the doctor first mentioned it to me I had a lot of doubts. . . but it’s great . . .it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.’ Tony

But participants often need encouragement to have a go. ‘In my classes we take small steps. We start with a small piece of paper and use a pencil, then we get bigger paper and paint, and we take it from there. I aim to give people the information and knowledge and the relaxed environment. When people are relaxed and not worrying about the quality of the work they’re doing, that’s when magic happens.’

Benefits to emotional and physical health

Annette has noticed big changes in the people who’ve taken her classes. ‘It’s had a profound effect on the participants, mostly in building confidence, having fun, getting some time out and distraction from difficult circumstances. One lady who came along to my class never saw herself as creative. She was involved in caring for her husband who was unwell. But in class she forgot about everything, she had time for herself so it was a real escape and something to look forward to.’

Being involved in creative activity and learning new skills affects participants’ emotional health too. ‘We’ve seen a lot of improvements in people’s mental health. It really helps people to get out of the house every week and come to a class. They are more confident, they have new ideas. For people who no longer work or perhaps live alone and have felt that there’s something missing in their lives, it’s created a new sense of identity and purpose.’

People outside the program notice changes too. ‘One lady in our music group who had breathing and lung problems recently visited her GP for a check up and he said “What have you been doing that’s new? Your breathing has improved dramatically!” And she said “Well I’ve been singing my lungs out in this music group.”’

Loneliness can be a big problem and meeting with others each week for learning offers social opportunities many participants have lacked. ‘A lot of the people who come along have been socially isolated so to come along each week and feel welcomed, and be part of the same small group in a positive affirming environment has been really powerful. A lot have developed new friendships. It’s a wonderful opportunity to connect with others.

‘Some people who come along already know other people or they know each other. We’ve had people who’ve lived around the corner from each other for years but coming along to something like this where they get to know one another through a shared experience really deepens relationships. And that continues. Afterwards some of them will meet one another for coffee, they have stronger community connections.’

No one is too old to learn a new instrument, become a photographer, perform in front of a crowd or paint a beautiful work of art. I see this program as a wonderful way in which arts and health can work together.’ Michelle Herndon, Project Manager, Hammondcare

New social opportunities

‘It also offers a new way of connecting with people outside of the class. Now participants in the program have something to talk about and they can share their enthusiasm with friends and family. So we’ve seen big social improvements. People seem much happier, more confident, and they’ve got a new energy about them.’

As a teacher Annette says it’s changed her too. ‘I feel like I learn more from them than they do from me. We have a wonderful time and have terrific conversations not just about art, but about their lives and the experiences that have inspired or changed them.

‘I’ve learned so much too because I’ve been experimenting through my teaching which means I reflect and consciously think about my art. Art is a source of such fulfilment and pride for me that it’s wonderful to help others feel the same. ‘Outside of Arts on Prescription I teach life drawing but it’s very different, it’s much more technical. Arts on Prescription is more about people and connections, about heart. It’s a very enriching experience.’

Next steps for Arts on Prescription

Originally developed in the UK the idea was imported to Australia and taken up by a NSW partnership led by the charity Hammondcare, funded by the Federal Government, and run in partnership with UNSW Art & Design and UNSW Medicine. Arts on Prescription has run over 50 programs in the past two years in the southwest and northern suburbs of Sydney. Budding artists put their work on display at an exhibition where they celebrate their achievements and raise public awareness of the importance of healthy ageing.

Project Director, UNSW Associate Professor Chris Poulos has been involved in the program’s evaluation which shows participatory arts are good for older people’s health and wellbeing. He hopes the success of the project will inspire other organisations to get on board. ‘Our plan was to encourage uptake of the idea. It is still early days, but over the past few months over 60 people have registered interest. We are also developing training for artists and organisations in how to run Arts on Prescription programs. This should be available later this year.’

menu