International and local initiatives that encourage and support people to age creatively are on display in Sydney this week at Arts and Health Australia’s annual conference.
This year’s event to promote the benefits of arts in health and wellbeing has a theme of Creative Ageing and includes presentations and workshops over three days at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and UNSW’s College of Fine Arts.
Tuesday’s presentations from the gallery included several international speakers sharing their experiences of using art and creativity to enrich the lives of older people especially those living in residential aged care or with dementia.
Gary Glazner, who is the executive director of the New York based Alzheimer’s Poetry Project (APP), shared his experiences of engaging elders in creative expression through poetry.
APP aims to improve the quality of life of people living with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia through supporting them to recite well-known poetry and create original pieces.
Mr Glazner demonstrated the “call and response” performance technique used in the project sessions and had conference delegates performing Dorothea Mackellar’s My Country as well as laughing like kookaburras.
He said the three key features to the approach were building a community, which they encouraged through activities like intergenerational sessions, a memory arts cafe and poetry in outdoor neighbourhood settings; communication where listening was the most important part; and collaboration, which Mr Glazner described as “when the vegemite hits the bread”.
Find out more: Alzheimer’s Poetry Project
Similarly with a dementia theme, Alice Thwaite, director of Equal Arts UK, introduced their project Room for the Imagination, which set about engaging aged care residents with dementia in participatory arts in an effort to improve cognitive function, communication, self-esteem and their enjoyment in life.
The eight-month project in nine aged care facilities involved 10 artists leading sessions in visual arts, music, dance and story telling.
The workforce training aspect of the project was open to a range of staff including activities coordinators, carers and administration and maintenance staff.
Ms Thwaites said one of the challenges was workers thinking doing creative tasks with residents was not “real” work. More education is needed in the sector to turn this way of thinking around, she said.
In addition to improvements for residents, the project resulted in staff being much more willing to change and see people as individuals, she said.
Their five-year project launched in 2012, Creativity Matters, offers free workshops for people aged over 50 wishing to develop creative interests and skills and then share those skills in care homes.
Also in town from the UK for the event is David Cutler, who is director of the UK’s leading funder of participatory arts with older people, the Baring Foundation.
He talked about the past, present and future of creative ageing in the UK from the perspective of his organisation.
While there has always been a tradition of creative ageing in the UK and a strong community art presence since 1970s, Mr Cutler said a study they published in 2009 identified a host of great work by arts organisations but a lack of support at a policy level.
The study found more was especially needed for people with the least access, such as those living in residential care or isolation. Since then the foundation has made 44 direct grants to all kinds of arts organisations that use best practice approaches.
Mr Cutler told delegates major research underway included a study about the arts in aged care homes which included training for workers. In addition to being beneficial to residents and their families, art in aged care improves the wellbeing for staff, he said they have found.
More recently Mr Cutler said museums were being extremely dynamic in the UK with the British Museum leading the way in making museums age friendly.
Find out more and access the foundation’s publications: The Baring Foundation
Elsewhere during the day, festival advocate Dominic Campbell from Creative Ageing International talked about his work developing arts festivals in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Netherlands and the USA.
Creativity, celebration and festivals help to open up our thinking on what creative ageing is, he said.
Among the festivals Mr Campbell has developed is Bealtaine, which is Ireland’s month-long nationwide festival about being creative as people age.
The festival is a collaborative effort and has grown remarkably since 1996 when there were 52 events, 7000 participants, eight counties and 36 organisers.
In 2013 over 112,000 people in 28 counties participated in over 3500 events put on by 700 organisers, he said.
Mr Campbell said participation was the starting point and evaluation was how you get it into policy.
Bealtaine’s model has been replicated elsewhere including Scotland where the Baring Foundation, in conjunction with Creative Scotland, have commissioned its own month-long national festival known as Luminate.
Creative ageing resources: The Arts and Aging Toolkit
The 5th Annual International Arts and Health Conference – The Art of Good Health and Wellbeing runs from 12 – 14 November.
Related AAA coverage: Collaborating with the arts