Using technology to bring meaningful arts-based recreation to older adults


By Swathi Swaminathan, Aviva Altschuler, Lynn Hasher, & Kelly Murphy

Engaging in enjoyable and stimulating leisure activities can have many benefits for older adults. For example, studies have found that engaging in enjoyable recreation is associated with enhanced well-being, improved physical health, decreased risk of dementia, and reduced reliance on healthcare resources (1-6). Actively participating in arts-based recreation, as opposed to simply observing art, such as when touring a museum, provides a fascinating opportunity for leisure: arts engagement can make people feel good, foster a stronger sense of identity, and meaningfully challenge and stimulate thinking and memory (1,5,6).

Despite the encouraging anecdotal and scientific findings about the benefits of arts engagement for older adults, accessing this type of recreational opportunity can be difficult. For example, programs are less available outside of city centres, and chronic age-related health issues, such as mobility problems, low mood, and visual and hearing declines, can prohibit access to fun recreation (7,8).

Internet connectivity and accessible technology offer promising avenues for overcoming these barriers. Moreover, data suggest that older adults are increasingly using technology (9), thus making digital health interventions a viable solution by bringing the activity to the user.

There are now several online recreation activities geared toward older adults. A recent example is a new product developed at Baycrest Health Sciences and tested on older adults in the community, called ArtontheBrainArtontheBrain is a web-based application (“app”) suitable for desktop computers, laptops, and tablets, which fosters wellness and brain health in older adults by using visual art as a platform for recreation. The app uses images of visual artwork (paintings, sculptures, photographs, cultural artifacts) sourced from North American museums to offer three activities resembling face-to-face art recreation.

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ArtontheBrain app interface

The first activity feature is called “Learn” in which users read about an artwork.  The second activity feature is called “Play” . In this activity, users play puzzle and storytelling games based on the artwork. The final activity feature is called “Mingle” in which users interact with others by sharing opinions about the artwork.

This digital recreation experience aims to be inclusive of all older adults, including those who are experiencing changes in their thinking skills or the onset of dementia. The app can be considered inclusive because people who feel comfortable with technology can use ArtontheBrain on their own, those who require some assistance can engage in the activities with a partner, and those who need more support can experience it in a group led by a facilitator or clinician.

ArtontheBrain also supports intergenerational interactions through features that connect users with their friends and family. These features mean that geography is no longer a barrier keeping older adults from interacting with younger family members who might live far away. Moreover, by enabling intergenerational interaction and discussion through joint arts engagement, the app can allow the passing of knowledge about the world from one generation to another.

During our testing of ArtontheBrain, we have discovered one crucial challenge for accessible technology interventions: technological advancement. Changes to software and hardware occur so rapidly that some devices and platforms become obsolete overnight. Technological advancement means that apps require constant development, upgrading, and testing ― efforts that are both labour- and cost-intensive. In our experience, effectively managing technological change has involved collaborating and communicating with developers, users, and recreation facilitators, while simultaneously pursuing funding opportunities to finance app development and updates.

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Image source: Ankur (Pexels)

A related challenge for accessible technology interventions is that users interact with technology in very different and often unpredictable ways. Cognitive status, mood, sensory loss, and personality traits may impact the user experience; for example, people with high openness-to-experience are more comfortable dealing with new situations and enjoy artistic endeavors more generally (10). Sensitivity to these factors is thus very important when customizing and updating apps like ArtontheBrain.

Since aging is often accompanied by changes in vision, we included audio options to allow users to listen to artwork descriptions. Images and text were also made visually accessible. Another useful tactic was to have the older adult user work with a partner to familiarize themselves with ArtontheBrain. This paired approach had an added benefit of social connection for the user.

Feedback from ArtontheBrain users suggests that despite technology-related challenges, users have a positive experience and are very willing to help us improve the technology.

We are currently conducting research (11) to evaluate how effective ArtontheBrain is for achieving the social and wellness benefits attributed to face-to-face, arts-engagement activities. Our preliminary results are encouraging: participants report improved mood, enjoyment with ArtontheBrain, and that they would recommend the app (12).  Eventually, we hope to make this innovation publicly available, so we are continuing to learn how to deliver a reliable and accessible recreation experience to older adults. Further, we want to share what we have learned to educate the public about what they can do to promote their health as they age, about what works and what does not, so that they can ultimately be informed consumers. Our work with older adults shows the importance of making time for enjoyable, arts-based recreation.


SS is supported by a postdoctoral fellowship funded through the Centre for Aging and Brain Health Innovation Researcher-Clinician Partnership Program (awarded to KM, LH, and AA along with their co-investigators). Art partners in the clinical validation trial currently underway include the Art Gallery of Ontario, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Royal Ontario Museum, and Raphael Goldchain’s photograph series I Am My Family. AA and KM are eligible to receive royalties from future commercialization of ArtontheBrain.

To refer to this article, it can be cited as:

Swaminathan S, Altschuler A, Hasher L, & Murphy K. Using technology to bring meaningful arts-based recreation to older adults. rehabINK. 2019;7. Available from:


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