Creative Ageing in Northern Ireland and the Spring in My Step
The Arts & Older People Programme, developed by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland in partnership with the Public Health Agency and The Baring Foundation, has been running successfully throughout Northern Ireland since 2010. The programme aims to combat the rising incidence of poverty, isolation and loneliness amongst older people, using participation in the arts as a vehicle for social development change.
"After a decade of funding the Baring Foundation is shifting our focus from arts and older people to arts and mental health. We have made a final grant to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland for a new three year joint fund for work with people with dementia. This has made me reflect on the question – what makes creative ageing work in Northern Ireland so special?
Perhaps one factor is longevity. The Arts Council Northern Ireland were well ahead in recognising the value of creative ageing. ACNI was the first national arts council in the UK to support this work in 2010 and one of the first arts funders in the world.
Since 2013 we have had a funding partnership, now in its third phase, to participate in pooled fund which both awards grants as well as supports festivals, training and other strategic work. A good overview can be found in The State of Play.
There has certainly been a cumulative effect of almost a generation of work, infecting arts and community organisations with the creative ageing bug and training a cohort of artists.
I think another factor is that work in Northern Ireland has a community focus and feels grass roots. It is explicitly aligned to objectives such as tacking loneliness as exemplified in the very good report Not So Cut Off. Work elsewhere has normally been confined to arts organisations while in Northern Ireland local authorities and community organisations have also been funded which has produced a very broad and rich portfolio of work.
I have had so many memorable visits – usually fun and moving at the same time. Off the top of my head I recall with pleasure going to see the beautiful mosaic Social Sofa at Helmsworth Court which painted a picture of local history. Elsewhere in Belfast I have seen great work by the Play Resource Warehouse, Oh Yeah Music, Eastside Arts, Streetwise Circus and the Fab Lab. Outside Belfast I have seen Big Telly Theatre Company and their flash mobs and Echo Echo Dance Company and CulturLann in Derry. And I know that that is just the tip of the iceberg of all the work that has taken place.
Some visits stand out for surprising reasons. Early on in our partnership I visited an evening event in sheltered housing in West Belfast where residents had been working with a theatre maker and a writer to produce a varied set of sketches. The pieces tackled tough subjects including the Troubles and domestic violence, but combined with dry Belfast humour. One of the residents, for reasons that remain unclear to me, had dressed as Carmen Miranda and demanded a dance in the interval. I think I have successfully suppressed the photos.
Visiting Northern Ireland to see the wonderful work being undertaken as part of the Arts and Older People programme has been the most enjoyable part of my very enjoyable job. I always come back with a spring in my step. Part of it is how welcome I have been made to feel; something I am deeply grateful for. The work is high quality and is undertaken with skill and enthusiasm, but that’s true elsewhere too. Creative ageing is an exciting field.
Perhaps the other secret ingredient then, and my favourite, is a distinctive sense of humour and mischief. There is a golden moment in one of the videos made by ACNI of work which is in a care home when participants are making collages and they are asked why have chosen what they are doing. They reply ‘We’re making dinosaurs – like us!’ And then they fall about laughing."