‘Don’t let age get in the way’

There is an art to maintaining quality of life and there is an art to how aged care professionals, family and friends support this process, writes Dr Maggie Haertsch.

Eileen Kramer
Eileen Kramer, who is 101 years old, has launched a second crowdfunding campaign to support art-making in aged care.

There is an art to maintaining quality of life and there is an art to how aged care professionals, family and friends support this process, writes Dr Maggie Haertsch.

Art matures over time, like good red wine. If we can bottle the magic of ageing artists we are more likely to understand how to help manifest creative and engaged older people. Artists help us to make sense of the world.

Eileen Kramer, an artist and dancer, at almost 102 years of age, has collaborated with fashion and textile designer Brigid McLaughlin producing a series of scarves and launched her second crowdfunding campaign to help art-making possible in more aged care services.

“It is one of life’s greatest joys, to have your own creation realized, says Eileen.

Eileen recently moved from a hostel for people at risk of homelessness into a spacious one-bedroom apartment with more independence and opportunity for her creative pursuits. It is so important for artists to have the opportunities to continue their work.

In 1966 the world’s largest artists’ community called Westbeth, a building of 385 rent controlled apartments started as an experiment in Manhattan, New York. Featured this year on the Sydney Film Festival’s program, an inspiring independent documentary had its world premiere, Winter at Westbeth drawing on the rich lives of three artists who have been living there for close to 50 years.

Eileen was in the Sydney audience of a full house recalling her memories of the building’s beginnings and knew a few of the artists who had moved in.

Recently other films where the subjects were well into their 80s have had a good audience response, such as Iris and Bill Cunningham New York. Last year we crowdfunded for Eileen Kramer’s new dance work with great success building a following of millions of people as the campaign went viral. There is a fascination towards older role-models but sadly they are too few.

Many older people say that they still feel young in the mind, their ideas are boundless and the passion continues but physical abilities change such as, tolerating food, managing diminishing eyesight or hearing, and being able to move with confidence can pose major challenges to independence. Importantly these all amount to a changing sense of identity. Adjusting from being the person you once were can lead to grief, a desire for solitude and less social connection exacerbated by the remarks and changed behaviours of family, friends and even strangers towards you.

Exclamations of “I’ll do that for you” ,“be careful there is a step there” or “dear, aren’t are you going well today” when the response although well meaning do little to instil a positive self image. In fact, none of these statements are warranted. Simple statements reinforce implicit messages of “I can’t do this for myself”, “I can’t see for myself” and “I am usually not in good shape”.

Only today a writer said to me that, at the age of 58, people regularly ask if she is retiring soon. She is aghast at the suggestion saying: “I will write until I die”. Eileen never states that she is retired, because she isn’t. She leads a highly productive life and continues to plan future projects with multiple creative ideas competing for her time and energy.

Age is a precondition of life; the problem is that we treat age as a medical condition. Finding a quality of life means that living requires taking risks. Eileen often says to me. “Why are people talking about me and I am here. I can speak for myself.” Perplexed by the inability of people to know how to relate to a person over the age of 100 years.

There is an art to maintaining quality of life and there is an art to how aged care professionals, family and friends support this process. Some simple guidelines could be to listen more and discover what it is that an older person aspires to achieve. What are their goals and what do they still want to do that they haven’t yet done? Don’t let age get in the way.

Dr Maggie Haertsch is CEO of Arts Health Institute, which provides arts-based experiences in aged care services including Play Up, Sing Out Loud, Music & Memory and Artists in the House.

Tags: arts, arts-health-institute, eileen-kramer, independence, Maggie Haertsch, reablement, slider,

2 thoughts on “‘Don’t let age get in the way’

  1. I recently spent 9 days in a nursing home in Melbourne following an operation, because my home is in Adelaide, where the operation is not available. During that 9 days I became concerned that the lives of the permanent residents where I was staying were painfully restricted by the lack of opportunities for their self-expression via their established skills or by opportunities to develop new ones.
    What the residents did between meals appeared to be simply waiting for the next meal. Some of them read a book or a newspaper, and some watched TV. On several occasions I passed them seated at a table for afternoon or morning tea, silent and immobile. No doubt imperfect sight or hearing limited their ability to communicate.
    I must admit that it is possible that some sort of occupational therapy was in fact provided, and that it took place at a time unknown to me. However, in my ignorance my imagination has suggested how the lives of these residents could be transformed by opportunities to continue their life skills, and also to develop new ones. Most of them are probably well able to make themselves light refreshments, but are not allowed to do so for fear of injury. I know of a particular lady who could easily and safely make herself a cup of tea, and also mix and bake biscuits – but no, she is prevented from exercising these lifelong skills in case she injures herself. . . . . .I would class this as some sort of elder abuse, e.g.,a deprivation of opportunity essential to mental health, which is likely to inflict far worse mental injury than any hypothetical physical injury. And this is not to mention opportunities to acquire new skills, such as drawing, painting, wood carving, lino-cutting and printing, photography, computer skills, knitting and other craft work. To the probable interjection: who will pay for the instructors and materials, I would answer that if the residents are unable to afford professionals, there are without doubt many skilled people, qualified or unqualified, who would be pleased to volunteer their services to enrich the lives of nursing home residents without charge.
    I’m not sure whether this is a suitable forum for my concerns – but Eileen’s inspiring story persuaded me to start here.
    Eileen is indeed an inspiration.

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