Curating Meaningful Cognitive Care

Categories: Optimizing Brain Health, Research|By |Published On: |

Addressing cognitive health and social connection needs in Canadian older adults through a combined memory and visual arts creation intervention.

This article was written by a guest contributor, and the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author.

Many older adults report concerns with their memory and worry that everyday memory lapses such as forgetting an acquaintance’s name when they meet them on the street (even trickier these days when people are wearing masks!) may relate to the onset of cognitive decline (e.g., Ossher, Flegal, & Lustic, 2013; Small, 2002).

With over 70,000 new cases of dementia diagnosed in Canada every year (Government of Canada, 2017), and care costs estimated at over 10 billion dollars a year (Alzheimer Society of Canada, 2016), it is imperative that we provide Canadian older adults with opportunities to support their brain health and well-being as they age.

Research suggests that participating in the arts can be an effective way to improve well-being in a variety of domains, including cognitive, social, and emotional (Cohen et al., 2006). Cognitive simulation and social interaction may provide some protection against cognitive loss as we age (e.g., Tardif & Simard, 2011). More so now during the COVID-19 pandemic than ever before, Canadian older adults need ways to help them keep their brains active, address their mental health, and reduce feelings of social isolation.

                Photo Courtesy MAPArts

In the Fall of 2020, in collaboration with Drs. Angela Troyer and Susan Vandermorris from Baycrest Health Sciences, Dr. Kate Dupuis, Schlegel Innovation Leader in Arts and Aging with the Sheridan Centre for Elder Research, partnered with artist Elaine Brodie, a Sheridan College professor in the Faculty of Animation, Arts & Design (FAAD), on a proof-of-concept research project combining standardized memory training with a visual art-making experience.

A new intervention, titled “MAPArts”, was designed to explore the combined effects of memory training and visual arts activities on memory and brain health outcomes in older adults. This research was supported by students in Sheridan College’s Interaction Design, Visual and Creative Arts, Animation, and Photography programs.

The project objectives were to determine whether 1) older adults enjoy using the visual and creative arts to represent their learnings from a memory intervention, and 2) adding an embodied art-making experience could serve to enhance the learnings from the memory intervention.

The team ran two iterations of MAPArts, with a total of 16 participants (15 females, mean age of 77 years) from across the Greater Toronto Area. The two facilitators (Dupuis and Brodie) connected with participants via Zoom for five weeks of twice-weekly sessions. During the Monday sessions, participants followed the standardized memory training protocol (e.g., learning new strategies to support everyday activities such as recording important information and placing items in a specific location within the home).

During the Friday sessions, participants worked on creating a “memory box” using a variety of different techniques including watercolour, pastel, and collage. Learnings from the Monday sessions were reflected on and interwoven into the art-making education and demonstration, and participants were encouraged to share any creations they had made during the week with their fellow participants.

MAPArts outcomes were measured and, in 91% of the cases, participants’ goals for the program were “completely” or “mostly” satisfied. Accuracy on a quiz about memory strategies was 86%. In half the cases, participants were able to connect information learned during the memory intervention sessions to their creative process.

Seventy-five percent of participants told us that the sessions convinced them anyone can be artistic/creative and that they felt more confident expressing themselves visually. Finally, 94% of participants reported feeling more familiar and confident with using art supplies, and 88% of participants stated they would like to continue exploring/developing their creativity.

Qualitative feedback from participants highlighted the mental health benefits of the art-making:

  • “Art is a wonderful outlet for expression but more so a form of relaxation”
  • “Relaxing. Calming.”

And the importance of the social aspect of the intervention:

  • “I really enjoyed the 'doing' of art in the sessions with other folks”

        Photo Courtesy MAPArts

Participants also indicated success in using their newly-learned memory strategies to tackle common memory slips:

  • “I memorized the 2 cell phone numbers of my daughters”
  • “Glasses are in one location now, periodically say my son's phone number out loud, once a week challenge myself to memorize something”

This was the first attempt to combine a standardized memory intervention with art-making and creative expression instruction. The project findings speak to the potential benefits of integrating these two forms of education and training and using visual and creative art-making to represent and further extend the learnings from the standardized memory training protocol.

The results of this initial project emphasize the importance of taking an interdisciplinary approach to tackling common age-related memory changes and speak to the power of social connections for supporting older adults as they learn new strategies to support their health and well-being as they age.


To find out more about MAPArts, view a presentation on the intervention from the 2021 Sheridan Creates conference, and a short video showcasing artwork and feedback from participants here.


Dr. Kate Dupuis, PhD., C.Psych., is a clinical neuropsychologist and a researcher whose work lies at the intersection of arts, health and aging and an Editorial Advisory Board member for Dementia Connections. In her research, she seeks to identify the potential personal and systemic barriers to participation in the arts, how we can facilitate arts engagement in older adults, and what the terms “being creative” or “artistic” mean to us as we age. Kate is also the Schlegel Innovation Leader in Arts and Aging at the Research Institute for Aging and the Sheridan Centre for Elder Research and presents Arts and Aging Day Canada.