What’s the impact of cultural participation in later life, and how do we capture its value? Helen Manchester explores what the research tells us.
Centre for Ageing Better
Together with the Centre for Cultural Value the research team for Connecting Through Culture As We Age has collaborated on a review focusing on what existing research has to tell us about the benefits of cultural participation on wellbeing and feelings of social connection as we age.
We identified and evaluated 70 peer reviewed studies that examined cultural participation for people aged 60+. Our review was shaped in consultation with cultural practitioners and organisations in May 2021, which illuminated the sector’s interest in knowing more about the added value of cultural participation on social connectivity, its relationship to wellbeing, and the role of the digital in cultural participation.
The literature identified a wide range of benefits to older people’s sense of social connection through cultural participation. These benefits included increased opportunities to build new friendships and increase confidence, leading to decreased feelings of loneliness or social isolation. Cultural participation in groups was also seen to enable older people to feel a sense of belonging and inclusion and, in some cases, to develop a sense of collective identity.
There is some evidence that activities increase feelings of being seen and heard through public performance and exhibitions. However, for some older adults, feelings of exclusion, rejection and anxiety also resulted from their attempts to join cultural activities and groups.
The literature also suggests that cultural participation can facilitate exchanges of experience, knowledge and skills with others, building compassion, empathy and understanding in those who take part. These studies tended to focus on intergenerational connections, sharing of cultural heritage, memories or life events and built links between different communities.
Specific kinds of cultural participation, such as dance or theatre, also provided older people with positive bodily experiences, enabling them to feel a stronger connection to their bodies and senses.
The key themes in the literature related to the effects of cultural participation on wellbeing echo some of the above messages. Firstly, cultural activity often led to positive emotional experiences for older people including happiness, joy and laughing together with others. Older people felt a sense of achievement through their engagement in cultural activities as they were able to experience new challenges, learn and broaden their horizons. This supported them to feel more able to counter existing stereotypes about ageing.
Cultural participation was also shown to enable older people to increase their confidence, particularly in sharing life stories, which in some examples enabled intergenerational and cross-cultural exchange.
Cultural participation does not always result in positive emotional experiences, it can also increase anxiety or result in frustration when activities are seen as too challenging or too easy. These kinds of negative emotions can result in older adults withdrawing from further cultural participation.
Interestingly there was very little evidence available around older people’s engagement in culture through digital technologies. Where evidence did exist, it tended to map onto the evidence from face-to-face cultural participation and there was a focus on intergenerational activity.
More research will no doubt result from practitioners’ experiences of digital cultural participation during the pandemic. This is something we are also exploring through the Connecting Through Culture As We Age project - we held a practitioner event in June 2020 to explore some of these experiences and our research will continue in this area.
Our review suggests there is global interest in the role of cultural participation in the lives of older adults, particularly related to increased feelings of social connection and wellbeing. It also suggests there is more to be done to demonstrate the added value of cultural participation for older adults.
Gaps in the evidence exist in terms of the everyday, individual cultural practices that older adults engage in, often in their own homes. An understanding of the importance of these activities could inform and develop cultural activities offered to older adults, enabling arts and cultural practitioners to develop their practice based on an in depth understanding of older adults’ everyday creativity, passions and desires.
Much of the evidence relates to older people who are female, white and aged 65-75. There is far less research available related to men, the oldest-old, disabled older adults and those experiencing racial minoritisation. More robust research is vital to enable practitioners to develop forms of cultural participation that attract and benefit older adults from those populations who tend not to participate in current mainstream cultural offers.
Much of the literature frames ageing as a negative process that might be mitigated through cultural participation, framing older people as a ‘burden’, as lonely or as in need of social care. There is far less research that takes an asset-based approach to the added value of cultural participation on older adults, for instance focusing on older adults as engaged and active citizens within their communities.
Methodological innovation is also needed in the field in order to develop robust evidence of use to the sector. In particular co-produced or participatory approaches to research that offer older adults agency and voice and well-designed mixed method research should be encouraged.
New partnerships between researchers and practitioners could help to tackle some of these gaps in the evidence and to encourage methodological innovation in order to put a strong case forward around the importance of cultural participation for all older adults and for the development of better research and practice in the field of creative ageing.
You can read the research review here.
Dr Helen Manchester is Associate Professor at the University of Bristol.
This article, sponsored and contributed by the Centre for Cultural Value, is part of a series supporting an evidence-based approach to examining the impacts of arts, culture and heritage on people and society.