To work with older generations can often be seen as a bit of a challenge by arts organisations. Arts Council England has previously noted that it tends to receive significantly fewer funding requests for projects that focus on working with older people. Brutally, investing in developing an audience that might not be around for a long-term relationship with your organisation isn’t a great business model.
Many NPOs choose to prioritise developing relationships with children and young people as, according to the Arts Council mandate, this suggests a far better lifetime return on investment. There might also be a concern that older visitors may have increased physical limitations and mental well-being needs, which may demand greater support for staff training and accessibility considerations at the venue. The seemingly widespread belief that older groups can be harder to work with – both in terms of need and longevity – is clearly affecting a sector-wide collective drive to create strategic projects.
This year, Midlands Arts Centre wanted to focus on this age group, tying together existing partnerships with new projects and collaborations. For the third year running, MAC has partnered with Bedlam Arts and Mental Health Festival to host events that raise awareness of mental health and celebrate the arts’ impact on people’s well-being. MAC’s part in the festival focuses on common feelings of isolation, anxiety and loneliness (often felt in the elderly), but we also hope to bring about a change of attitude in the sector.
As an arts organisation, one of the most eye-opening aspects of running community outreach programmes targeted at over-65s has been identifying that attendees are not necessarily those one might expect.
By attempting to reach the most isolated members of our community – for example, those living in full-time care – it became increasingly evident that feelings of loneliness and disconnectedness are not confined to care homes. They are felt by those living with spouses suffering with dementia, those who are newly retired or perhaps suffering with medical issues such as hearing loss. Loneliness is encountered by even the most independent and active community members.
With this awareness, we recognise the need for arts organisations to develop creative and inclusive projects that can tap into these groups, in turn bringing together audiences from different generations to engage within the arts, find methods of self-expression and increase self-confidence.
These efforts demonstrate the potential and need for a collective effort within the arts to work with elderly communities to further enhance their well-being and social connectedness, while challenging and shifting current attitudes to working with older generations. In return, MAC and other arts organisations are able to learn from and can be continuously surprised and delighted by the creativity that stems from their varied life experiences and cultural insight.
Deborah Kermode is chief executive and artistic director of Midlands Arts Centre