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How getting involved in the arts could keep us all still rockin' and rollin' like Sir Mick

By Mary Kenny

Published 09/05/2016

Rocking on: Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones
Rocking on: Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones
Disco dancer: Jack Leslie

More than 100 studies in America have shown that older people who have some involvement with the arts have improved wellbeing, better medical outcomes of care, and a reduced likelihood of depression.

And an extensive Norwegian study - involving 51,000 older people (of pensionable age) - showed that people had reduced stress levels and a prolonged active life if they had some connection with the arts.

Loneliness and social isolation in old age have a highly-deleterious effect on health: it can be as bad for people as smoking, and is worse than obesity. People need social involvement, which is all the better if it is creative and imaginative.

For all these reasons, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland has, for nine years now, conducted an 'Arts & Age' festival each spring, which is all about reaching out to communities of older people and involving them in arts projects: in music, storytelling, dance, painting and ceramics, in performance, in drama.

As men can be lonelier in older age - they're not as adept at making social connections - a particularly enchanting project is Men's Shed Art, which involves men over 60 and their sheds in the Antrim, Downpatrick and Fermanagh areas.

In all, 9,100 older people have participated in 97 creative arts projects founded through the Arts & Older People Programme. And Northern Ireland is an enlightened pioneer in this field - it's the first arts council in the United Kingdom and Ireland to have this strong focus on linking older people and the arts.

It's lovely to see young people being given opportunities by arts councils: but it's refreshing that Belfast has found that it pays to involve the oldsters. And it does pay - in terms of public health.

As Brendan Bonner - head of health and wellbeing at the Public Health Agency - explained at a Belfast Arts & Age conference last week, we have proof that arts activities enhance health. Arts activities reduce the number of times an older person visits their GP - so spreading an art habit saves resources for the health service.

Dr Una Lynch, who (with the artist Joan Alexander) has produced an excellent booklet about alleviating social isolation among oldies, Not So Cut Off, found that "some people think the arts are too highbrow for the likes of them, too hifalutin". That's something that can be and has been overcome with community projects.

Dance is a terrific and joyful area for involving older people who might otherwise feel isolated.

Dr Jenny Elliott, CEO of Arts Care and a dynamic teacher of dance in the field of arts into healthcare, was delighted to work with someone of 104 who was dancing away merrily. (A terrific role model here is the late Sir Jack Leslie of Castle Leslie in Monaghan, who died last month aged 99, still disco-dancing.)

A delicate and rewarding area that is being explored is the way that the arts may be able to help people with dementia. Colours and music may be meaningful where rationality doesn't always make sense. But Jenny Elliott underlines that artists themselves must be trained to approach people with dementia. This is a work in progress, but again Northern Ireland seems to be pioneering ways of handling it.

My own experience of visiting care homes for elderly and frail people is that they are often dismayingly under-stimulated. A lot more needs to be done to provide this stimulus, everywhere.

The Arts Council of Northern Ireland, which is chaired by Kerry-born Bob Collins, formerly director-general of RTE, has good relations with the Arts Council in Dublin. Bob Collins hopes that Belfast's focus on spreading the arts among older people will be taken up south of the border. (They do have a direct link with the Bealtaine Festival, which takes place this weekend at various locations in Clare, sponsored by Age & Opportunity.)

There is always the question of funding, and politicians don't always put the arts at the top of their priorities. In Belfast, the Arts Council invests £100,000 into the Arts & Age projects, but the Baring Foundation has been generous, and there is also backing from the Public Health Agency. They could always do with more funds, though, Jenny Elliott says of any project - "Vision first, then funding".

I found myself speaking at the aforementioned Arts & Age Conference last week - on how much the arts meant to me, especially, during the years when I was my husband's carer - and I was so impressed by this imaginative concept of involving older people with creative projects.

Picasso was mentioned as an example of an artist who went on creating late in life, but I'd also mention the Spanish writer Cervantes (who wrote Don Quixote when he was 67), and Michaelangelo, who was painting vigorously into his 80s. And can we ignore that oldie music artist, Mick Jagger?

And by the way, the great political/religious divide which has been the hallmark of identity and discourse in Northern Ireland is ignored.

Men in sheds and disco-dancers aged 104 aren't about to be bothered by old sectarian divides.

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