In the run up to the BSG 2019 conference, where the Creative Ageing Special Interest Group will run our inaugural symposium, we are publishing interviews with the steering committee to share more surrounding our vision and goals for the group.
Cathy, can you tell me a little about your background?
I have a clinical background in nursing and an academic interest in social geography. I suppose my particular interest is the relationship between people and place.
I’ve been working with the cultural and creative sectors for a number of years, using participatory approaches and creative engagement to involve older people in big decision-making around things like improving quality of life or services and support. It seems to me that dance, storytelling, performance… these are all great ways to get people connecting with themselves. This is important when a notion of the self has been shaken up, as it might be when someone is labelled as a ‘faller’, or as an older person, for example. Creative engagement is just one aspect of my work, but I do find it exciting.
Something else I enjoy is bringing creative work and artists into teaching of health professionals. It is so useful for some of the more challenging and emotional issues – for example thinking about living well with dementia or how you communicate with someone with acquired brain injury.
I generally try to advocate for cultural commissioning, in which creative engagement is understood as being pivotal for creating social change or having an impact on policy. I’m a social gerontologist but you might also say I’m something of a community activist!
So, what do you understand by the term ‘creative ageing’?
We are all ageing, from the day we are born. Challenges are inevitable but the thing is to ensure that people aren’t diminished in the process. Creativity comes in useful in helping us think imaginatively about connecting people to themselves, to each other and to broader structures in society. I think creative ageing is about activities that cut across misunderstandings about the ageing process, allowing us to remain open to opportunities while acknowledging issues and inequalities.
And what are your hopes and aspirations for the new SIG?
I think that it should be all about sharing platforms. I’m pleased that it is being driven by early careerists and I like that its emphasis is on inclusivity. I was on the BSG conference committee in 2015, when it was in Newcastle. One of the things we did was to programme a play originating in research around dementia as one of the plenaries but also it was performed outside the conference. That drew attention to how creative outputs can get people thinking about the value of research, beyond the academy.
What role do you see yourself as playing within the SIG?
I have a lot of on-the-ground experience of research and of developing policy and practice, but being a mentor absolutely doesn’t mean I want to push my own ideas forward. I’d like us to bring on lots of other mentors. We need an older person mentor, and a practitioner mentor for example. To my mind, mentors should enable reflection and also learn from others. When you’re starting something new, and particularly when you’re talking about a topic as wide as creative ageing, I think you need space for reflection.
And where can people find out more about the work you have done in this field?
One project to highlight is around the housing needs of people in later life, and its roots are very much in creative engagement. In 2015, in collaboration with Elders Council Newcastle and Skimstone Arts, we did a consultation involving an arts residency. We were trying to find out from people who don’t usually engage in these kinds of conversations, what it is that they might need to stay put and stay well in their homes and communities. Participants got involved in co-producing a theatre production, a version of which was professionally performed at the Edinburgh Fringe. A later version: ‘Doorbells Dreaming for the Future’ came out of an Elders Council led commission from Care and Repair England. This was part of a national conversation on housing in later life, and there’s a film on location that people could watch.
Another study, with Professor Charlotte Clarke, Edinburgh University, looked at issues of risk and resilience from the standpoint of those living with dementia. A fictionalised theatre production, again with Skimstone Arts, ‘Jack and Jill and the Red Postbox’ explored how dementia affects issues such as identity, roles within the community and the family. There are more, but I’ll stop there!
Interview conducted by Karen Gray: @kcrgray.