The need for creative and challenging experiences does not diminish with age, as Alison Leverett-Morris explains.
It is estimated that by 2030 almost a quarter of the UK population will be of pensionable age. Against this background of unprecedented social and demographic change, old age is being redefined in terms of status and standing in the lifecycle. At the same time it must be recognised that older people have a valuable contribution to make to cultural life as many are involved in appreciating the arts, visiting exhibitions, theatre, or watching films as well as those involved in making art.
If, as a society, we are to fully embrace social inclusion and cultural diversity, we must recognise that older people share the same need for creativity and enrichment from the arts as the rest of the population. As the demographics change, the association of elderliness with decline ceases to bear relevance. The ‘Grey Market’ or the ‘Third Age’, an active and independent life post-work and parental responsibility, is increasingly recognised by artists, arts managers and arts providers as a significant sector of society and an important area for arts marketing and audience development. Arts providers must, however, be mindful not to assume outdated stereotypes as to the type of cultural activity in which older people will engage.
Arts providers must also be mindful not to exclude those older people who might be described as being in their ‘Fourth Age’ – those who have become increasingly frail. It is no longer acceptable to use disability, frailty or ‘number of birthdays’ as a barrier to participation. The demographics have changed. Older people are and will continue to be active consumers and contributors to the arts. Older people living in residential care are often amongst the most isolated and marginalised members of society, and many experience physical disability and/or mental health problems such as dementia. The focus of care is, necessarily, on the physical well-being of clients and the level of care is often intensive and relentless. As a result, access to the arts for residents can become a low priority.
Ithaca works across Oxfordshire and Berkshire to create real and tangible opportunities for older people to make their mark and contribute to the cultural life of their community. We work mostly with frail older people living in residential care. Involvement in one of our projects is sometimes an older person’s first experience of participating in an arts activity, visiting a gallery or watching a live performance. More often though, project participants include older people who have regularly visited museums, galleries or the theatre throughout their lives, and people for whom literature, music, film, painting or embroidery have been a lifelong passion.
A recent collaboration Ithaca undertook with Oxfordshire County Council, the Social and Health Care Directorate and Oxfordshire Touring Theatre Company (OTTC) serves to illustrate the many strands of work with older participants. As part of celebrations for 2003, the European Year of Disabled People (EYDP), the project was based on memories of the 1950s. Called ‘It’s Only Rock n’ Roll’, it aimed to increase older people’s involvement in the arts, raising the quality of creative opportunities available for older people and improving the mental and physical health of those in residential care. Working with a team of artists, the older people participating explored their memories through music, dance, creative writing, drama and storytelling. Participants worked towards informal performances that shared and celebrated their life experiences with family, staff and fellow residents. Their memories also fed directly into the creation of a professional theatre production by OTTC. Reminiscence and theatre sit well together and the show toured to over 50 day centres and residential homes across Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Hampshire. The show had particular resonance for those individuals who had contributed their own memories, but once a story is shared it belongs to all. The originator of a story has their own special version locked away but the version told through theatre is one that all can share, enjoy and be inspired by. Following the show, a team of visual artists took inspiration from the performances to continue reminiscence of first love, dancing, launderettes and even the first formica kitchens. Such themes inspired participants to create a stunning body of visual artwork exhibited to the public at Oxfordshire County Hall and Ark-T Gallery in Oxford.
The notion that older people in their ‘Fourth Age’ cannot engage in challenging and stimulating arts activity must continue to be challenged. Many people entering residential care for the first time may be in the early stages of depression, which can be why it is often hard initially to engage them in meaningful activities. However, there are organisations which can provide training that enables care and nursing staff to come to a better understanding of arts processes and the importance of their role in supporting older people. Education also remains crucial to an increased understanding of the arts and, in turn, contributes to increased awareness and involvement. Furthering the role of creativity across all learning is a growing priority, and this must include a continuing emphasis on arts and older people.
A video of ‘It’s Only Rock n’ Roll’ is available at £8.50. An exhibition of work produced by older people on the EYDP programme is open at South Hill Park Arts Centre, Bracknell until February 1 2004.