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Engaging HRM Seniors in the Arts to Promote Healthy Lifestyles

Originally from Cornerbrook, Newfoundland, Jesse Robson found out in November that she was the only Atlantic Canadian finalist in the Alesse Entrepreneurial Contest. 

Now living in Halifax, Robson is starting the Centre for Arts Exchange, an opportunity for seniors and caregivers to engage in regular art activities to promote physical and cognitive health. If she wins one of the $5,000 prizes, it will make her first series of summer camps that much more feasible. But Robson plans to go ahead with the workshops regardless, paying for them out of pocket if she has to.

Recently Arts East had the chance to talk to the 24-year old artist, scientist and entrepreneur to find out about her creative background and what inspired her to start the Centre for Arts Exchange.

AE: How has art played a role in your own life?
JR: I was incredibly fortunate to grow up in a community that was home to several talented, dedicated, spirited arts mentors. They, and the arts they taught me, gave me the support and encouragement to grow beyond my boundaries and limitations, to make new discoveries and to create new things. Years later, after having had the opportunity to study other fields, these skills have stayed with me and I've begun to make connections beyond the artistic realm. What I've learned through the arts has had, and continues to have, a profound impact on my life.

AE: What mediums of art do you gravitate to?
JR: Most of my experience has been in dance, music and circus arts - given a blank slate and unlimited time however, I would write poetry and circus shows.

AE: How did you first come up with the idea for Centre for Arts Exchange?
JR: The idea was born out of a great deal of research into geriatric care and North American initiatives for elderly adults. I believe it has the potential to further many of the recommendations of today's scholars and patient care providers.

AE: What is your main purpose/goal for the Centre?
JR: There is a clear need to increase the recreational opportunities available to HRM's elderly adults, and also to provide support for our local caregivers. Researching recreational possibilities for elderly adults, I find that the vast majority of opportunities available are either brief, once-a-week activities which while provide only brief, occasional engagement; or adult "day centres" or "day care facilities" which tend to offer fairly stereotyped activities.  I see great potential for a centre which would provide safe, well-designed, and highly atypical activities for elderly adults, where individuals would be welcome to either spend a large chunk of their daytime hours, or to visit briefly on an occasional basis. I am particularly interested in helping to support local caregivers, and seek to offer caregivers and family members opportunities to either participate in the Centre's activities with their loved one, or to take some time to meet their own needs while their loved one participates in interesting, productive activities.

AE: What programming will the Centre initially start with?
JR: This summer I will be running a summer arts camp for elderly adults in collaboration with two other young artists: Isabel Lavender and Kayla Mallery. This is my third project for elderly adults, following the creation and implementation of dance classes and "circus magic" classes for elderly patients at the QEII. Kayla has been involved with the dance classes from the very beginning, and Isabel leads a hand chimes choir for elderly adults at the QEII. Prior to my work with elderly adults, I created and taught dance classes for disabled children in Montreal, and circus classes for HIV+ children and street kids in South Africa.
AE: What is your ideal vision for the Centre when it is in full swing?

JR: Eventually, I would like to see a permanent arts facility open from Monday to Friday, where all elderly adults, as well as their caregivers and family members, can come to participate in an eclectic variety of arts activities led by local artists - for either an hour, afternoon or an entire day. It's important to me that this centre offers activities which are truly physically and cognitively engaging, helping elderly adults to maintain their health and well-being to the greatest possible extent. I would also like to see large numbers of Haligonian artists engaging in "arts for social purposes" by using their creativity and expertise to create opportunities for other Haligonians - especially those experiencing physical, social, cognitive and financial challenges. One of my major goals is to challenge artists to apply their creative energy outside of their usual disciplines, in an effort to improve their communities. An additional goal of the Centre will be to provide training, resources and support for artists interested in pursuing their own social projects, and for those who would like to lead the same sorts of arts workshops that we will be offering at the Centre at other facilities around Nova Scotia.

AE: How do you see art as a form of therapy or as part of a healthy lifestyle?
JR: I think that the arts offer a myriad of benefits to the individual, including a sense of confidence, worth and productivity, and the opportunity to explore new ideas and to ponder them creatively. I also see the arts as having significant value to society, promoting collaboration, creation, innovation, honesty, diversity and communication.With today's scientists and medical professionals pushing physical activity as a crucial protective measure against age-related physical and cognitive decline, I see the performing arts and 'action art' as methods of engaging more and more elderly adults in activities which have physical, cognitive and social benefits. Since art is accessible to even the frailest and most vulnerable elderly adults, I feel it has the potential to encourage both beginning and seasoned artists to remain engaged, inspired and productive during even their most challenging times.

AE: For those who feel like they do not have a creative side, how do you recommend they start experimenting with art?
JR: I think that an obstacle that the vast majority of us face is falling into habits which inhibit us from experiencing new enterprises and ideas. No matter what our interests or creative backgrounds, I think that when we do choose to try new things, we typically select activities which are similar to those we've done before. For those who have never studied the arts, I think that beginning can be not just intimidating, inconvenient and expensive, but also highly unlikely. My recommendation would be that beginning artists prioritize both the technical and the creative aspects of their chosen art form, learning to see art as a valuable activity in which they learn, reflect, challenge themselves and unwind (and in the case of many arts activities, interact with others and/or be physically active).
You can vote for Jesse Robson’s project until February 13 by visiting

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