Ageing and art: tackling isolation among older people

Photographer-led workshop, part of the Meet me at the Albany project

Photographer-led workshop, part of the Meet me at the Albany project

One in six of us – that’s 10 million people in the UK – are over 65 years old. By 2050, this number will have nearly doubled to around 19 million, or one in four, according to government figures.

In a recent Age UK survey, more 77% of respondents said they are looking forward to living longer but 91% said something needs to be done to help us all lead a better later life. The survey of 1,480 adults also suggested that most of us (83% of those questioned) believe negative perceptions of later life must change.

The onus is largely on health and social care organisations – hospitals and care homes – to improve the treatment of older people (not least as cuts decimate support for the most vulnerable). But communities themselves and some innovative local projects are also doing much to tackle social isolation and change attitudes.

One unusual scheme in London is doing just that. I know the Albany arts centre in south east London through the work of the fantastic charity Heart n Soul, one of almost 30 groups that use the venue as a base (read more about Heart n Soul in this previous post).

The centre is now hosting a creative day club for the over 60s – the kind of stereotype-smashing thing that sticks two knitting needles up at anyone who dares assume day care for older people is about flower arranging and endless cups of tea.

Proving that older people can be just as innovative, artistically edgy and downright clown-like as their younger counterparts, the Meet me at the Albany project involves everything from circus skill tasters, to neo soul music performances and spoken word sessions with “poet from the pub” Simon Mole and fellow leading wordsmith Malika Booker.

The image above is from a recent workshop with photographer Manuel Vason, an artist who sees his practice as a constant battle against the impossibility of reaching ‘presence’. Think cutting edge rather than Kodak moment.

The project is produced by the Albany and participatory arts company Entelechy Arts, which has worked for more than two decades with people in care, younger people and those with learning difficulties and complex disabilities. It is also a direct response to the issue of loneliness among our ageing population and has been created with the support of Lewisham council’s adult social care staff “to ensure the effective dovetailing of the programme with targeted provision for those with greatest need”.

As well as creative workshops and performances from established artists, participants can have a home cooked hot meal and drinks. Sessions take place every Tuesday at a cost of £6 (all materials are included in the price and there is no charge for personal assistants and carers). The scheme is targeted – rather wonderfully I thought – at “anyone over 60 who’d like another place to call home”.

At 80, Velda is the sole carer for her husband Henderson who recently had a severe stroke. She is fully signed up to the Albany ethos: “[It’s]…good to leave your home, to get away from your four walls and come together, use your imagination and do things that are worthwhile rather than just housework. I enjoy making new friends – people you never knew before. [My husband has]… known me for 51 years and he never knew I could draw.”

Just last week Age UK launched its Love later life campaign encouraging people to think differently about getting older, and demonstrate that older people have a valued role in society (see clip below).

The campaign urges us all to think that it’s never too late to try something new. Down at the Albany, Velda and her peers are ahead of the game.


“Ageing is not an illness”: Age UK’s new television advert

About Saba Salman

Saba Salman is a social affairs journalist and commissioning editor who writes regularly for The Guardian. Saba is a trustee of the charity Sibs, which supports siblings of disabled children and adults, and an RSA fellow. She is a former Evening Standard local government and social affairs correspondent.
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