Guest post: Arts and older people in Wales

David Cutler, the Director of the Baring Foundation (of which I’m a trustee) has been reflecting on the strength of art work with older people in Wales. Here he describes some of the work that has been developing over the past decade and suggests some reasons for its success; the original post is here

Welsh magic: what’s behind the magnificent work taking place in arts with older people in Wales?

I have been asking myself this question after participating in the excellent conference at the stunningly beautiful new Royal College of Music and Drama in Cardiff on 6th April. The conference was organised by the Arts Council Wales and Age Cymru with financial support from the Baring Foundation. It culminated with a strong endorsement from Ken Skates, the Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Infrastructure. The day showcased arts activity from the length and breadth of the country, but clearly showed that practitioners did not want to rest on their laurels but see how this could be improved.

Wales has many treasures when it comes to arts and older people. Central to this is Gwanwyn, the month long creative ageing festival in May. Gwanwyn means ‘Spring’ in Welsh and renews the landscape each year. Run by Age Cymru since 2006  it reaches over 11,000 people in around 500 events. Gwanwyn gives grants to pump prime activity.  It continually develops with local Gwanwyn year-round clubs as its latest manifestation.

Gwanwyn’s management by Age Cymru has meant that it is able to benefit from that organisation’s knowledge of the wider scene of older people’s work including their My Home Life programme of training for the improvement of care homes. This has very much helped the brilliant cARTrefu (meaning ‘to reside’ in Welsh) programme also based there and funded by the Arts Council Wales and ourselves. The programme works across four art forms (performing arts, visual arts, words and music), with an expert artist  mentoring four others. cARTrefu has already placed artists in residence in around one quarter (122) of the care homes in Wales. This makes it one of the largest arts and dementia schemes in Europe.

cARTrefu-residencies-project_Michal-Photo

To take one moving example, one of the artists, the photographer Michal Iwanowski, has worked with residents to make their dreams to come true. For one resident, this was identifying and photographing the grave of her first husband who died in Austria on the last day of the Second World War. Unable to visit the site and for many years silent about this loss to her second husband and family, the photograph taken by Michal has been deeply important to her. cARTrefu will run for another two years and an evaluation is about to the published by Bangor University.

cARTrefu and the wide range of projects in Wales are captured in this short film.

Last year, I had the pleasure of seeing two great theatre pieces the Foundation had the privilege of supporting. Re-live, run by Karin Diamond and Alison O’Connor, produced a powerful new play written by Karin called Belonging/Pethryn, which was developed from numerous interviews with people living with dementia and their carers. I went to a performance mainly attended by professionals working in social care, many of whom were struggling with tears by the end. It has toured wales and won several awards and is part of a growing body of work by the company with a focus on dementia. We also funded the National Theatre of Wales, which created a new play called Before I Leave which arose out of playwright, Patrick Jones’s encounter with a dementia choir in Methyr Tydfil. NTW worked with a number of dementia choirs on a new work piece called I’ll Sing this Song by Manic Street Preachers, Nicky Wire and James Dean Bradfield – there’s even an app! As elsewhere in the UK, theatres and other venues in Wales are beginning to programme dementia-friendly performances.

There is also much to celebrate in the work being undertaken by local authorities, despite the immense pressures on resources in Wales as elsewhere. Denbighshire Council has been running the Lost in Arts project (with support from ACW) for over five years. Artists work with people living with dementia in a number of sites and with local primary schools. Partnerships between local primary schools and care organisations are also central to a Gwynedd Council project to tackle loneliness among older people in rural communities: Memories through Music – Connecting Generations is delivered by Canolfan Gerdd William Matthias Music Centre.

Museums in Wales are also engaged with this agenda. Perhaps one of the bolder examples has been the dementia friendly trips organised by the Big Pit National Coal Museum. Singing and coal mining, two pillars of Welsh culture, came together in a commission we funded by Live Music Now in our Late Style programme (promoting the commissioning of work by older artists). Jon McLeod, the composer (himself over 80) produced a haunting piece, partly based on the memories of people who were children in the Aberfan Disaster (and coal mining communities in West Lothian). Called Songs from Above and Below, the song cycle was premiered at the Wales Millennium Centre. (You can listen to excerpts of the music here in this short video about the making of the song cycle.)

So why is Wales winning an enviable reputation in participatory arts with older people?

Clearly the collaboration of and leadership by the Arts Council Wales and Age Cymru has been crucial. It strikes me that key arts organisations and older people’s organisations are better networked, certainly than in England. This will only be improved by the launch of the Age Friendly Cultural Network, an initiative of Ageing Well in Wales and the National Museum Wales.

Wales has some structural advantages, not only in scale but in innovations such as the creation of the officer of Older People’s Commissioner, combined with her clear appreciation that culture is a right for older people. New legislation, the Social Services and Wellbeing (Wales) Act 2014, is also offering new opportunities and these are being taken in a practical ways such as the Age-Friendly Communities Resource Hub.

cARTrefu and other projects have demonstrated that there is a wealth of artists who see the creative potential and excitement of working with older people. The ambition of these projects is evident.

We have wanted through our funding to instil an understanding of the value of arts for and by older people – among arts organisations, older people’s charities, the care home sector, and among artists and the community as a whole. The signs that this idea has taken a firm root in Wales look particularly promising.

Spring time in Wales is glorious indeed.

David Cutler, Director, the Baring Foundation

With thanks to David and the Foundation for permission to include this text here.

Speaking of unspoken things

Western medicine has pushed back the frontiers of disease, making death rarer, at least in the sense that it does not intrude into our lives with the brutality with which it visited the Victorians. In the 19th century death often came for the young and those in the prime of life. There can have been few families who saw all their children grow into old age. Our ancestors, who might face dying at any age, had better resources for dealing with its reality than we do, including rituals for every stage of dying, burying and grieving. Some cultures still have them. But months of formal mourning now seem excessive, even absurd, in the healthy, prosperous West, where death is not to be spoken of except hurriedly, in hushed tones. In England, it’s almost embarrassing. We’re anxious to do the right thing, not to be ‘a bother’. No wonder we coined the phrase ‘dying of embarrassment’.

Indeed, I’m faintly embarrassed to have raised the subject now. Let’s not go there.

But we must. Death is the only thing of which we can be certain, however much we proclaim The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. We might not know it, yet, but we know of it. So we keep it on the other side of the glass. Science and medicine form an impenetrable, if transparent, barrier between the living and the dying.

In the past, death announced its coming. Unless it came catastrophically in an accident or a heart attack, it allowed some measure of preparation. People died at home, in their beds. A family gathered, knowing what was happening. The living sat with the dying and tried to ease their suffering. The priest or the minister was called. Thomas Lynch, the American poet who is also an undertaker, has written movingly about the time – most of time, it must be said – when people were born and died where they lived and among those with whom they had lived. That is a rare experience nowadays. My father died at home, a small mercy in a sudden and frightening end. But almost every other lost friend  has died in a clinic’s impersonal room, not because they all needed 24 hour medical care but because it’s how we manage dying now in rich societies. As Lynch says:

“We are embarrassed by [our dead] in the way that we are embarrassed by a toilet that overflows the night that company comes. It is an emergency. We call the plumber.” (The Undertaking)

The difference, for many, is the loss of religious faith that once gave death transcendent meaning. A death seen as passing into another life evidently has nothing in common with a death seen as the end of all life. Whatever comfort religion brings the believer is unavailable to those who outside the faith. And for them, the rituals of death developed in a context of faith can feel hollow, or worse. So they are left only with the antiseptic services – no one could describe them as rituals – of medicine and its unspoken embarrassment at failing to prolong life.

Into this space, tentatively, delicately even, artists have begun to step. In Leiria (Portugal) is the Sociedade Artística Musical dos Pousos (SAMP), a music school run by and for the local community since 1873. Its present director is Paulo Lameiro, a musician and educator of exceptional imagination. Alongside the usual programme of instrumental teaching and concerts, the orchestra, choir and swing band, he has reached out to local institutions, including the prison and the hospital. Among other work, SAMP musicians have explored how to share music with babies and the very ill. Bringing music to the dying and the bereaved grew out of that experience.

When an elderly man died during a performance in a hospital common room, everyone present wanted to sustain the music and the atmosphere it had created. The clinical staff were asked to wait. There was a person to honour; a life event to respect. The music turned out to be a valued support for that reality.

Since then, SAMP musicians have been asked to play for people at the end of life, when families have gathered for the heartbreaking moment of shutting down an incubator,  and in the moments after death. The musicians have provided comfort to the dying and to the bereaved. It goes without saying that they are present at these times only at the request of the dying and the family. And just two of SAMP’s members offer this support. They have learned how to respond imaginatively to each individual, aware of that person’s relationship with music. They have learned too how to cope sensitively with the feelings in the room, not least their own.  Music, familiar and loved or newly improvised, has helped mark the moment’s unique importance and support those who are living it. Like life itself, its presence is actual and meaningful. Intangible, it touches everything.

One moment it is there, heard but unseen, and then it is gone. So light and yet so great.

In January 2010, the Canadian folk singer Kate McGarrigle was able to die surrounded by her musical family, including her son Rufus Wainwright, who spoke of the moment later:

“We sang to her as she lay there… as we were having this jamboree, her breathing became more laboured and she made a moaning noise. One of the nurses said this could go on for four days and we had already exhausted the back catalogue. Then Kate breathed a little differently, it was like she was saying, ‘Hold on, I’m going to end this show’, and she died. I was looking right into her face, her eyes were open, and my aunt Jane was holding her hand. It was an amazing experience…”

For millennia, people have thought and written about how to die. Montaigne, who lived in the 16th century and saw a lot of death, called dying ‘without doubt the most noteworthy action in a man’s life’. Today, the best on offer may be dying with discretion. But there are alternatives, as SAMP has shown. It is hard to imagine a more vulnerable and profound artistic work than these performances for the dying and bereaved.

Each person, each family will have their own wishes: the SAMP approach is not for everyone. But it is a reminder of art’s place in helping us find new ways of marking the fundamental moments of life, including its end. Last week SAMP hosted a conference on art and health in the hospital of Leiria. Its title was ‘Aqui Contigo: Porque d’Arte somos’  – in English,

‘Here with you: because we are (made of) art’.

This post was written at the request of London Arts and Health Forum and published in slightly different form on their blog on 19 April 2017.

Enjoy the walk

Today, I realised that I’ve spent six months writing the wrong book. Or at least writing what I thought someone else might want. I’d forgotten why, several years ago, I began to look for a new language in which to talk about people’s experience of art, in the various explorations I called Regular Marvels. Instead, I’ve drifted back into the kind of academic language that’s always covering its back.

No wonder it’s been hard work – and I apologise to everyone who’s asked me how it’s going recently and got only complaints. No wonder I feel like Sisyphus pushing words uphill only to see them tumble down again. I know that books which aren’t enjoyable to write are rarely enjoyable to read, but I wasn’t listening. There’s no fool etc.…

The book’s due in three months’ time (I hate deadlines) and I’m sitting amidst hundreds of pieces that don’t add up to anything because they’re made for the wrong book. But at least I know it now. So: back out of this dead end and set off in another direction. And this time, enjoy the walk.

The book I should be writing is the book that only I can write. Time to get cracking.

I am not the milkman of human kindness

If you’re lonely, I will call –
If you’re poorly, I will send poetry

Billy Bragg, The Milkman of Human Kindness (1983)

I don’t remember when artists began to speak of ‘delivering’ projects, but it may have been around the time when delivery entered the rhetoric of politics. That was worrying in itself – after all, government only talks up its delivery when it knows people aren’t persuaded that it is actually making things better.

Be that as it may, the metaphor has always made me uncomfortable. It imagines participatory art as a package that can be handed over. The artist just needs to turn up ready and equipped to ‘deliver’ the workshop and another box can be ticked. It doesn’t really matter who is being delivered to because delivery is one-sided. Some imagined public good is handed over and signed for. Job done: the commissioner is content.

But the essence of participatory art is co-creation and that is not one-sided. Ideas and imagination, influence and power, authorship, creativity – all shift restlessly between everyone involved. What happens is unpredictable because it emerges from a shared creative process. There is no plan to be delivered, like a lesson with learning outcomes. There is, with luck and a following wind, a creative journey to be shared towards a destination that may turn out to be quite different from the one that was anticipated. All the best results of community art – growth, empowerment, change – come from being together in that journey.

I have never delivered a community art project. I’m not a milkman, quietly placing a healthy pint on stranger’s doorsteps. Community arts does not give you calcium. I want only to share a part of my journey with someone who wants the same.