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Seniors: Digital storytelling in North Vancouver
On Tuesday mornings a group of seniors gather in front of laptops at Silver Harbour Seniors’ Centre. At one time they may not have considered themselves artists, but now they are all experienced digital videographers. Thanks to a program started in 2006 called Arts, Health and Seniors Project (AHS), the seniors have learned to use sophisticated technology to tell their personal stories.
The Arts, Health and Seniors Project began as a joint research project by the University of B. C. schools of nursing and audiology and speech sciences.
It was based on the ground-breaking Creativity in Aging study by Dr. Gene Cohen, which found that seniors who participated in weekly art sessions had fewer visits to the doctor, needed less medication and experienced less pain. They also reported improved mental health and were more involved in other activities.
The program at Silver Harbour Centre came together in 2006 when the centre was looking for an avenue that would allow seniors to create videos of local history and of their own lives.
At the same time the Arts, Health and Seniors project approached Silver Harbour Centre about whether they would be interested in offering a digital storytelling program. The happy convergence that started out as a three-year project, due to the enthusiastic response of participants, has continued on.
In the six years the program has been running at Silver Harbour over 25 seniors have participated. Their videos cover a range of topics — work experiences, local history, memorials to loved ones, portraits of friends. Many of those videos are posted on the Silver Harbour’s YouTube channel Silver Harbour Stories.
The 10 seniors in the group meet weekly, for two-hour sessions, over a period of nine months.
Facilitating the group is artist and videographer Lisa Neilsen who has a special interest in recording people’s personal stories. “[Video] is such a perfect medium, and seniors are such a perfect group of people to work with because they have their whole lives of stories they can tell — it’s just a really good combination,” says Neilsen.
As a professional artist, she is there to provide expertise and to work with participants, individually and as a group. She is also introducing them to software programs Final Cut Pro and Photoshop Elements they will use to produce their videos. For this year, Neilson’s suggested theme is “Geography of Memory,” though participants are free to choose any subject that inspires them.
Annwen Loverin, Executive Director of Silver Harbour Centre has seen some dramatic transformations over the six years. One participant was able to move out of a care facility into assisted living. Others overcame significant health barriers such as moderate dementia and even blindness to express themselves through their art. The benefits have not been limited to physical wellness. By recording their stories, participants experience a sense of accomplishment and a connection to their community.
While the seniors who participate in the AHS program benefit, so does the wider community, “I think it [the program] changes our stereotypical view of seniors. It throws us for a loop in terms of our perspective on seniors. I think it’s so healthy for us to have our stereotypes questioned as a community,” says Loverin.
Videos produced this year will be screened at Silver Harbour sometime in late May. They will also be featured in June at the Round House Community Centre as part of the Arts, Health and Seniors showcase. Presently the videos are being screened before the movie features at the Kay Meek Centre, and there are plans to show them at retirement homes on the North Shore. Community groups can request a screening by contacting Silver Harbour at 604-980-2474.
As the Creativity in Aging study concluded, any improvement in the health of seniors translates into reducing the demand for long-term care as well as the cost to provide it. The Arts, Health and Seniors program is accomplishing more than just that. It provides seniors with an opportunity to express their creativity and to remind the wider community they have important stories to tell.
—Josie Padro is a writer/researcher with North Shore Community Resources Society