The role of culture and the arts in ageing

Recently I was lucky enough to take part in a dynamic cultural exchange around arts and ageing, when I visited the Netherlands with Jennifer Connolly, a consultant in public health at Stockport MBC. The exchange was led by the Baring Foundation in the UK and set out to explore, connect, network and share good practice.
The Baring Foundation has supported arts and ageing programmes since 2010 and sees Local Authorities perfectly placed to work with the ageing population. Hence, representative of 10 Local Authorities and partner arts organisations spent 3 days learning from each other as well as colleagues from the Netherlands and Finland.

The keynote speaker on the first day set the tone for me.  Prof Slaets from the Leyden Academy, chair of Geriatric Medicine, spoke about his evidence-based work, using research to prove the effectiveness of arts programmes with elderly people.  But his passion came through when describing how it’s not the numbers that are needed. “It’s obvious,” he said, “Just look at the artists connecting with the dreams of elderly people.”

He urged us to make the experience and narrative of people important and relevant to policy. How culture and the arts can bridge the increasing segregations in society, filling those the gaps.

At Arc we see how cultural activities are a source of wellbeing and connectedness, they are intrinsically about people and emotions, a place to share and to connect people with very different cultural backgrounds.  I have often written & spoken about narratives & the importance of our work in providing a place and time to tell your story, about how important that is for our own mental health, sense of wellbeing and connection to each other. But the challenge we face is how to do this with reducing resources?

Prof Slaets spoke of needs vs desires. We are told that the reduction the suffering of people in need is the priority and where the money must go – healthcare, education, welfare.  But desires are personal, they are what actually matters to us and may be more important to our quality of life, especially in periods of ill or deteriorating health.  So maybe we shouldn’t just try to reduce suffering but try to make people happy – to create opportunities and realise capabilities.  As Prof Slaets said, “make the life of vulnerable people as meaningful as possible.” And that will take a refocussing of resources and budgets. Numbers out, narratives in. What a challenge!

There were also great visits to projects in Amsterdam and a wealth of networking and of generating ideas.  So, watch this space….I hope Arc will pilot some new programmes in the near future, as I am inspired to think differently about our link to Stockport’s emerging Ageing Well strategy.

Arc’s presentation of the Heatons Arts Trail showcase is featuring as part of the GM Festival of Ageing 2018.  The Festival will take place across Greater Manchester between the 2nd and 15th July 2018 and will be a celebration of positive and diverse images of ageing.

Jacqui Wood, Artistic Director, Arc

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