Blog: Supporting isolated older people through creative activities
Published: 26 May 2021
Following the traumatic impact that Covid-19 has had on so many people’s lives, the media is full of predictions that the UK could see a ‘significant return to normality’ by the summer. But, for over 1.4 million older people in the UK, this return to normal could see little change.
"My own understanding of the transformational impact that the arts can have on older people’s lives was deepened by my Fellowship in 2010." - David Slater, Fellow
The pre-Covid loneliness experienced by many of our oldest citizens has been recognised as a major public health concern, with its risks of cardiovascular, autoimmune, neurocognitive and mental health problems.
How could things be different? A recent report from The Care Collective has described ways in which many people in need of care are often supported by a social system that serves to isolate them their wider communities. Residential and day care provision is often provided in segregated settings creating structures of ‘organised loneliness’. The report’s authors propose that: ‘we need to create localised environments in which we can flourish: in which we can support each other and generate networks of belonging.’
For the last 40 years I have been working alongside artists, creative producers and health and social care partners, on the design of creative projects that support isolated older people to become valued members of their communities. One such project, Meet Me at the Albany, has been running for eight years. Based at south-east London’s regional arts centre the Albany, the programme has propagated a creative network involving over 150 formerly isolated older people.
The project began in the arts centre’s café, with a room full of people from different backgrounds – the recently bereaved, people living with dementia, people living with multiple underlying health conditions and people living with depression. Into this open public space we invited artists from a range of disciplines to spend time with people, without initially knowing what could or might happen. Within two months, the room had transformed into a space full of singers, knitters, weavers, poets and storytellers.
Eight years on and the elders’ shared biographies now include the hosting of a celebration for a royal wedding in London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, a UK tour of a street theatre performance that highlighted the stories of the isolated, and the curation of a three-week celebration of creative ageing supported by London’s Mayor.
The success of this model is dependent upon three key ingredients:
- Visibility. Activities happen in public spaces, allowing for chance encounters and new possibilities to emerge. Older people are not hidden away. They are recognised and valued.
- Collaboration. Our work is equally managed and developed by two arts organisations, Entelechy Arts and the Albany, working together. Close links have been established with local social prescribing initiatives, enabling health professionals to refer their patients to the project and ensuring connection with those in greatest need.
- Co-production. Older people are at the heart of the decision-making process, engendering feelings of agency and joint ownership.
Project member Jacquie Channing-Hamon reflected on the impact that the project has had on her life: “It’s given me a new zest for life and a new determination that I can do things for myself if I try. I’m a different person, more able and more confident. I often wonder what next is going to happen that I’ve never experienced before in my life.”
Nelly Andoh, an older participant who I worked with many years ago, succinctly captured the essence of engaging in art. She said: “I thought I’d finished with life but this is waking me up again. It makes you feel you’re not dead. You’re not worthless. You can do something and still be a part the world.”
My own understanding of the transformational impact that the arts can have on older people’s lives was deepened by my Fellowship in 2010. I started in Los Angeles USA and gradually made my way east spending time with a number of inspirational artists, both young and old, who were creating life-enhancing work. I ended my travels in a church hall in Brooklyn, New York. I’d got lost on the subway and arrived late, to sit around a table with a large group of elders gossiping together about ordinary day-to-day stuff. Somebody’s neighbour had just given birth to a baby girl and she hadn’t even realised that she was pregnant. I thought I’d got the wrong place. Clearly this wasn’t an arts project. But then, miraculously, the ordinary conversational energy slowly segued into breathing exercises and then vocal scales and finally the room was full of song, flourishing and belonging.