One of society?s less visible but looming issues is that of older men?s health. Ginny Brink suggests that a uniquely Australian concept might offer us a solution.
You could grow old just absorbing all the literature there is on ageing. It’s one of this century’s big flavours and we’ve only just started to taste of the implications of our expanding greying population. However, in spite of our emerging awareness of this radical demographic shift, elderly people still suffer extreme exclusion: half of those over 60 live in deprived urban areas and 300,000 older people have gone a whole month without speaking to neighbours or family.
A section of the older population that is particularly at risk of isolation and its associated health problems is that of older men living alone: 19 per cent of men aged 65–74, and a third of those over 74. The quality of life of these widowed, divorced and never-married older men has been shown to be exceptionally poor.
Unemployment and retirement are key factors. Once men leave the workforce they begin to feel the effects of being ‘oldered’. Without the status, structure, social web and activity that the working world offers, many feel at a loss as to how to engage their minds and bodies, make friends and keep a positive, outgoing perspective on life. To compound this, many services for older people are geared towards lone older women, and men tend to lack the social support networks that women are inclined to make. So, unless they have hobbies or interests and a wide circle of friends, they can fall rapidly into decline.
This is a tragedy – for all of us. With fewer young people for employers to draw on, the pensions crisis and a very large number of healthy older people, we need to make the most of that huge pool of skills, knowledge and social connections that individuals accumulate over a lifetime. It doesn’t evaporate just because we go off the pay roll. What is needed to keep this rich resource flowing into society? A simple change in attitude, and mechanisms that keep people connected to social and economic networks.
The first may be the biggest challenge but it’s key to our future. Unlike other cultures where older people are respected, even admired, we tend to ‘older’ our elders by subscribing to negative stereotypes and depictions of old age as an unpleasant time, and older people as inferior members of society, with less to offer and deserving less. Since this view is distasteful and scary to us we shut them out of our minds... and our lives.
But old age need not be like this. There are hordes of older people who wouldn’t recognise this depiction of the lives they live. Old age may bring some problems, but it is no longer a life stage to dread. Close to one in three over-65s now have more life goals than they did in their thirties, and they aim to realise them.
As for the connecting mechanisms, what better than the voluntary arts activities provided in our communities? The arts are well known for the difference they make to our health, but according to recent research the real key to healthy ageing is social interaction and participation, i.e. activities that naturally allow people to enjoy respect, establish and maintain supportive and caring relationships and to continue to exercise their competence.
A ground-breaking initiative in Australia may just prove the point: ‘Men’s Sheds’. These are workshop-type spaces in community settings that offer a sense of belonging through regular hands-on activity: woodwork, pottery, photography – activities that also tend to match the preferences of older men for practical learning in informal contexts, where they can meet others, learn in groups and be with other men.
Significantly, these ‘sheds’ have been successful in attracting men facing issues associated with debilitating change, including health, isolation, disability and loss. Men aged over 65 go to the shed out of a need for friendship in a place that affirms them, the latter being a vital factor. Significantly too, participants report feeling better about themselves, being happier at home and greatly appreciating the opportunity to be accepted by, and to give back to, the community. They seem to particularly enjoy the lack of compulsion, opportunities for mentoring and ‘getting out of the house’. They are no longer lonely or isolated.
It is not hard to see how the hundreds of groups, clubs and associations offering a multitude of voluntary arts activities across the UK can, and already do, play a very similar role to Australia’s Men’s Sheds. The activities that arts groups provide offer all the benefits described above, and will become increasingly important with longer work and post-work lives. Voluntary arts organisations could well come to play a large part in helping older people age well and maintain their contribution to society.
So next time your arts group is looking for new members, actors, singers, writers, costume makers, scene painters, administrators, judges, organisers, ushers… think about how you might attract and involve the more mature generation. There are an awful lot of ‘them’ with enormous energy, knowledge and enthusiasm who want to be a part of everyday life, make friends, and lead committed and interesting lives until the end. You might just find they make the very difference you are looking for.
Ginny Brink is Core Services
Co-ordinator at Voluntary Arts Network.
t: 029 2039 5395;