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Online LINK: Social cohesion in social isolation - creative ageing

Blog post written by Naomi Momoh, intern with Leeds Arts Health and Wellbeing Network. The session was co-chaired by Laura Wright and Katey Warran.


On Wednesday the 16th of September I met with Kathleen Mitchell, an arts and health researcher from Sunderland, to co-facilitate a discussion on Creative Ageing, and the ways in which we can maximise the creativity of older people ahead of National Arts in Care Homes day. A mix of researchers, creative practitioners and interested people from various arts and health backgrounds joined the discussion to share their expertise in the field.


Most recently at the Leeds Arts Health and Wellbeing Network, we have been in conversation with several organisations and care home activity coordinators working to provide creative opportunities for the elderly, using unique methods to collaborate, engage and support them in their creative exploration and growth. I felt it was pertinent to discuss creative ageing with a wider group approaching Arts in Care Homes Day on the 24th of September, looking at how we can support older people in their creativity going forward, especially during this period of social isolation. Older people have become increasingly socially isolated as additional precautions are taken by care homes due to COVID-19, making it difficult for the creative activities that once took place in these homes to continue – supporting our creative communities during this difficult time is especially important, but how can we continue to do this effectively?

Research has shown that participation in social and creative activities can enhance and protect good health and wellbeing amongst older people. Provoking memories through creative activities can also prompt people to share how they feel and reflect on what they feel passionate about as well as the creativity that speaks to them. So, to start off the discussion, I asked the group to take themselves back to their childhoods, reflecting on their earliest creative experiences and the influence that these experiences have had on their creativity as individuals. Group members were able to recall very detailed creative experiences from very young ages, varying from weaving stools at the age of six, painting pottery, creating art pieces using materials such as wet sand and shells as well as helping to create murals.


Having thought about our own creative experiences, we moved on to discuss whether or not older people may need the extra support to fully engage in the creative activities offered to them. We were reminded to be mindful of our language use when categorising people into a broad group such as that of ‘older people’ and looked to be more celebratory in each individual’s uniqueness and abilities. Whilst many agreed that older people may need more support and caring encouragement for their activities, others brought up the fact that some will never need that kind of support, being able to lead on activities themselves. Making sure that when implementing creative activities, everyone in the room is comfortable and has a say in the creative process is incredibly important, and often older people may lack the confidence to express themselves creatively. Ultimately, bringing out this confidence allows people to take creative ownership in an activity and allowing them to become more engaged.

Developing on this, I prompted a conversation on the ways that we can support people living in care or independently in the co-production of their own creative activities. I was inspired by the work of Leeds based theatre company Performance Ensemble, after a LAHWN meeting with 71-year-old emerging artist Alan Lyddiard, its artistic director who works to advocate for the community arts movement, international collaborations and the ensemble theatre practice. The empowerment of older people through the co-production of theatre projects is an important theme in performance ensemble’s work, and this was emphasised in our conversation, with one participant suggesting that older people – especially those who might be more vulnerable and isolated - be given the opportunity to engage with the wider community, as well as having the choice to find the things that interest them.

Communication and connectedness were also things that the creative practitioners amongst us found key in working with older people, agreeing that conversations with residents, careers and family members at the beginning of projects to gauge what their interests were was paramount in allowing them to influence the design of programmes, with responses and feedback used as tools to inform future sessions. Referring back to the use of memory as a way of opening individuals up creatively, another participant who had experience of working with individuals living with dementia commented on how provoking memories through creative activities can be a powerful tool in encouraging co-production. It can be especially hard to identify exactly what an individual living with dementia may want in the co-production process as they lack the capacity to communicate, however observing responses to activities may help to create a more person-centred delivery of sessions in future.

The co-chair of the session Laura Wright (International Institute for Child Rights and Development and University of Edinburgh) asked the important question of which projects may work well in care homes as priorities have been shifted to keeping residents safe, making it hard to engage fully with the community during lockdown. We touched on the fact that there are still reduced opportunities for creative engagement, with creative practitioners having to adapt to facilitate more interactive and socially distant activities for residents in care homes.

The use of care packages for care homes seems to be just one way in which practitioners have been able to provide more opportunities for engagement in care homes. For instance a community dance artist working with older people described how it was entirely possible to carry out socially distant and interactive activities in care homes, talking about her current doorstep dancing project with the Dance Network Association to deliver packages including props and pre-recorded DVD sessions to care homes. She also talked about the use of adaptive ping pong game packs in care homes which have allowed residents to get involved by themselves accompanied by guided instructions. Other participants went on to share their current projects, with a community musician working with older people in London who has been involved in organising the voices in motion project which you can read more about here. Another participant working in creative ageing shared an event that she had been working on with Luminate Scotland to discuss care homes, engaging with the care sector. You can find more information about the upcoming event here.


So, how can we evaluate these projects? Posing this difficult question to the group I was met with a pondering silence, however one participant jumped in to share the method Luminate had been using to evaluate their latest projects. To engage older people living in isolation, they commissioned 25 artists to make short films on creative activities which were shared on different mediums such as Facebook, Youtube and Vimeo. The evaluation was completed by observing Facebook engagements, general statistics and a survey which was sent out to the care homes of which 11 responded. However, she mentioned how it was difficult to find out from the older person themselves if they were engaging and even more so finding out from their carers who were understandably busy. Having an awareness that delivering projects online is a completely different ballpark when trying to create and evaluate is important as the one to one element is essentially lost through this virtual environment. Furthermore, we discussed how individual experiences can be vastly different, with needs changing every week. This can also make it hard to evaluate the outcomes of projects.

We found that focusing on having conversations with all involved both before and after a project is key to evaluation, however this has proven to be very difficult for those evaluating due to the nature of the projects being held. Delivering online projects may affect the aims of projects and can hinder the creative support being given to participants. In order to maximise the creativity of older people, we must fully support and engage in a way that increases visibility, and we can do this going forward by making projects more accessible – whether online or in person.


Leeds Arts Health Wellbeing Network are working with the Cultural Institute (University of Leeds) and the Centre for Cultural Value (University of Leeds) to bring together an online programme, Beyond Measure, this Autumn to explore research and evaluation in the context of culture, health and wellbeing programmes. You can find out more about our exciting programme here.


The Social Cohesion in Social Isolation online chats (Arts, Play, Health network) are currently taking place fortnightly on Wednesdays 4-5pm GMT to facilitate further connection and action during COVID-19. To find out more or to sign up to attend a future session, click here.


Thanks go to Naomi for writing this fantastic overview of the conversation. If you are interested in writing for the Arts Health ECRN please get in touch!

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