The golden girls who refuse to act their age

As a week to celebrate older people begins Jane Hardy meets an 80-year-old dancer, a blind woman who learned circus tricks and an actor with a famous sister

Members of the dance group
Members of the dance group

As part of the lead-up to the Celebration of Age Week (COAW) that runs until Friday, Northern Irish over-sixties have been getting into the arts, thanks to a £65,000 hand-out from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and Atlantic Philanthropies.

Not just painting delicate watercolours or listening to Radio 3, you understand, but dancing, treading the boards, doing a spot of stand-up and joining the circus for an afternoon.

These are what you might call ‘red hat’ activities, after the best-selling poem by Jenny Joseph that sums up the desire to defy the date on your passport and famously opens ‘When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple/ With a red hat that doesn’t go and doesn’t suit me.’

These arts-based activities are fun, good for mind and body, and they also give the forgotten generation a voice.

To date, 3,500 Northern Irish senior citizens have benefited. As Arts Council of Northern Ireland chair Bob Collins says: “This programme was designed to challenge perceptions of what it means to be old.” It’s worth remembering that Picasso painted into his nineties and produced exuberant work until his death.

This attempt to quash the ageism in Northern Ireland’s youth-oriented society seems to be working. Fired up participants have been redefining the term OAP and are even set to flashmob Stormont today.

As Sandra Perry, a founding member of the Age on Stage dance group, puts it: “It makes me feel very alive.”

‘Acting helped me deal with my husband’s death’

Maureen Ginley (73) is a mother of six, grandmother of 20 and a great-grandmother of two. She’s widowed and lives in Belfast. She says:

I’ve been with the Spring Chickens theatre group for four years. I live in sheltered housing and the writer Patricia Gormley, who does work with some residents here, knew the boss Christine Nelson and asked if we were interested.

I’ve done a show every year since, and I love it.

This year we’re doing sketches and singing.

I suppose theatre runs in my family as my sister Pat Ramsay who lives in Birmingham was a top singer and dancer and one of Les Dawson’s Roly Polys.

She used to do old time music hall as well and has sent me over books and costumes. She gives me really good advice.

I usually sing songs in our shows and love Doris Day and the older numbers like Blue Moon and Sunny Side of the Street. We like doing happy stuff and I also act in the sketches.

It was hard at first and I suffered stage fright. I never thought I’d be able to do it but after the first time, it was fine.

One of the pieces we’re doing this week in the Black Box is all about relationships and a bit sad. There’s a film showing on the wall while we act and we run through the story. Most of my family come along to see me three of my grandsons — Tony Walsh and James and Colin Curtis who are 18, 20 and 23 — came to Conway Mill when we did a show called Cryin’ Air, Ryanair with a difference.

I was the old stewardess on the plane. It was very funny and they were impressed.

We’ve done work at old people’s homes and with a barber shop quartet from a local boys’ school, La Salle in Andersonstown.

I think it does younger ones good to look at us doing something as otherwise they think my generation just complain about aches and pains. My husband Jimmy died four years ago. He was full of fun and laughed all his life, and always told me to go ahead with the group.

Doing this helped me with the grief when I lost him. You make friends and I think you have to get out.

If you sit in the house, you get more depressed.”

Maureen Gilney belongs to the Spring Chicken Theatre Group, part of the Big Telly Theatre Company. Visit www.big-telly.com

Send in the clowns ... circus project turned my life around

Winifred Blain (68) is an ex-housekeeper, now registered blind, who lives with her husband George in Harmony Court sheltered housing in north Belfast. They have two grown-up daughters and three grandchildren. She says:

The circus came here and did workshops for 12 weeks before Christmas and some of the residents participated in the tricks. A girl called Rachael and a couple of fellows called Tim and Paul from the Belfast Circus School taught us.

They showed us juggling with the diabolo and spinning with plates and hats. I was okay with doing this, in fact I go to an art group run by the RNIB.

I’ve been blind since 2006 because of glaucoma and cataracts. My sight went gradually but I’ve no sight at all now and do everything by touch.

Since losing my sight I’ve been to art classes where people tell me what colours I’m using, plus I’ve made pottery that went into an exhibition to do with the Victorian era.

When I tried the juggling, it wasn’t that difficult. I didn’t drop any of the bowler hats as my co-ordination is good and I know how to throw and catch. But I got a real buzz out of juggling.

It’s important for the older generation to do different things and I believe in not allowing my disability to overcome me.

You overcome it by thinking positive and by getting out, which helps you gain more confidence. Recently, I’ve managed to get a taxi and make it to the doctor’s surgery by myself.

I like a challenge and I enjoy quizzes. If you’re disabled, people think you haven’t got a brain, but I have a very good memory. Art takes you out of yourself and although I’ve had a few drawbacks in my life, with my eyesight and family issues, I don’t believe in lying down under them. Although I’ve got diabetes and arthritis, I don’t let things get to me. I’m a church-goer which helps and I believe somebody is watching over us.

When the circus people left, I was sorry. They were a breath of fresh air. If I couldn’t do art, my life would be the poorer.

It’s been enriched by this kind of outreach activity and I think we need to put money into these things. I’m much more independent now thanks to projects like this.”

‘I’ve a gammy knee but I just like dancing’

Sandra Perry (80) is a retired educational psychologist who lives in Belfast. She says:

I joined Age on Stage about two weeks after it started in 2007. I like the participatory nature of our dance group, the fact we involve with each other — and there’s lots of laughter.

We do one major performance a year, and I can’t count the number of gigs we’ve done. We call the performances we’re asked to do gigs and did two this week, all directed by our organiser, Anthea McWilliams. They last half an hour and we dance for the over-55s or for pensioners’ groups. When we’re booked, anybody who’s free comes along to dance.

What we do is based on the move-along-to-a-song idea, that is movement initially designed to be performed to music by older people sitting in a chair. We’re standing up and doing the same kinds of movement to music by Perry Como, Nat King Cole and Al Martino, high activity music from the 1950s and 1960s.

Then we throw sparkly scarves or a balloon to each other and into the audience. So someone who was maybe slumped in their seat will sit up and throw it back.

It’s not the same as a keep fit class. I don’t think I’m fitter than I was, and I still have a gammy knee, but you get something out of moving to rhythmic music. Also you have to remember the moves from week to week, so it is good for the brain. And it’s nice to do something for others.

Age on Stage is attached to professional dance groups and we did a workshop with the Maiden Dance group at the MAC recently. When we saw their show we realised the point of what we’d been doing.

I enjoy the shared activity and the fact we look after each other. At our stage of life, time is limited and we have lost a few since I’ve been in the group. People sometimes disappear for a while, say to go to hospital, then reappear and we all say Hooray. There’s friendship in the group, but not romance, no. We all feel slightly responsible for each other.

Our shows are good. I’ve dragged friends and honorary family along and they’ve all enjoyed it, saying ‘that’s nice’. Belonging to the group gives me somewhere to go every Friday and it makes me feel very alive.

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