Jan Carson talks Art and Older People
We caught up with writer Jan Carson about the EastSide Arts Artful Ageing project which aims to break down isolation and loneliness amongst older residents and how she enjoys working with older people.
“I’m currently facilitating a fantastic ten week course writing Radio Drama about the Caring experience with eight incredibly inspiring full time Carers. It’s a project run by Eastside Arts, funded by the Arts Council. It’s one of about a dozen community arts projects focused on older people which I’ll be involved with this year. More and more my arts practice seems to be centred upon the over 60s. While I still love facilitating writing workshops in schools and programming more general arts events, I have to admit that I really prefer working with older people. I’ve been engaged with older people’s arts for about six years now. I never expected to go down this route, but the more events and projects I work on, the more passionate I become about this sector. Sometimes at dinner parties and conferences, people will ask me why I work with older people so much. I feel sorry for these people. They are usually still standing in the same spot half an hour later, coffee going cold in their hands whilst I deliver, what can only be called, a sermon on the importance of ensuring our older people have full access to the arts.
Why do I work with older people? It’s not that I’m a particularly nice person. I’m not a horrible person either, but I do resent the implication that any artist engaging with older people is only doing so out of some over-zealous attempt to be benevolent. I like older people. I don’t primarily see them as old. I consider the people I work with to be diverse individuals. They intrigue me. They’re full of life experience which, for me as a writer, is an incredible draw. I’ve lost track of the stories I’ve written inspired by people I’ve met in older people’s art projects. I can’t even begin to express how grateful I am for the times I’ve spent in the company of people living with Dementia. My own writing has been profoundly impacted by the opportunity to observe and explore how Aphasia impacts language and forces the person living with Aphasia to find new, creative ways around gaps in their vocabulary. I am a better writer for being exposed to new and difficult ways to engage with language. I’m done with the outdated notion that the arts practitioner gives and the older person simply benefits from their time and creativity. Working with older people is a much more fluid kind of relationship. Often, I feel like the one who’s receiving most.
Neither do I work with older people because art is good for them, even though I know it is. Engagement with the arts combats social isolation. It can help to mitigate against depression and other mental health issues. It keeps older people active and mobile, and can increase their quality of life. Structured arts activities often give carers a much-needed outlet for respite or a chance to meet socially with others who are in similar situations. The arts can build self-esteem, personal pride and a real –vitally important- sense that there are still new experiences and challenges to be enjoyed, even later in life. Sometimes, we are guilty of believing the lie that community arts is a fluffy add-on to the really crucial elements of provision for seniors. (Health, housing, transport etc). But I’ve witnessed firsthand, the significant positive impact of engagement with the arts. For the small amount of money invested in allowing our older people to enjoy an arts activity, enormous amounts are saved through keeping them both physically and mentally healthy, which can alleviate the pressure on increasingly stretched NHS resources.
I don’t even work with older people because I respect and wish to honour the contributions they’ve made to society, though I fundamentally believe that people deserve to be celebrated and treated with dignity in later life. I’ve taken part in some incredibly exciting reminiscence projects over the last few years. It can be really cathartic for thsoe involved to reflect back on past achievements and experiences. I’d love to see these stories of local lives –both exceptional and average- better reflected in our art and archives. There’s so much to learn from those who’ve gone before us.
And yet, the projects which have most excited me have been those which don’t look back but boldly insist that older people are still capable of learning and creating and trying new things at seventy, eighty and even, like one brand new digital photographer I met last year, one hundred. I want to see more older people’s arts projects which challenge the idea of what an older person is and can do. Anything that a so-called ‘regular’ person can have a go at, can be adapted for older people: filmmaking, graffiti, drum workshops, digitals arts. A good facilitator can make any art form accessible to our older people. Wouldn’t that reassure those of us who are getting older and don’t want to spend our golden years tea dancing or singing along to Vera Lynn? Older people aren’t cute or sweet or to be patronised with mediocre, one-size-fits-all art experiences. Older people are just people who are older. They deserve to have choices and experiences which reflect the wide range of their interests and abilities.
Which brings me to the real reason I work with older people. It’s not benevolence. It’s not out of respect or, for the palliative benefits. I facilitate arts engagement for older people because I can’t afford not to. Because I live in a time and place where many of our seniors worked so hard, they’d neither the time nor the money to try being creative. Because I don’t just suspect, I know, that there are incredibly talented writers, musicians and artists of all ilks, out there and they’re seventy and eighty and even a hundred years old and haven’t yet been discovered. What a waste it would be, what a loss for us all, if we didn’t give them the opportunity to shine.”
The Artful Ageing projects is part of our Arts And Older People Programme. For more information visit artscouncil-ni.org/arts-and-older-people