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How can we counteract ageism with creativity?

Older woman and younger girl laughing

Not to put too fine a point on it, from an entirely disinterested economic perspective, the COVID-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents.

Jeremy Warner in the Daily Telegraph on 3rd March.

One has to hope that, looking back on this comment, Warner now has some regrets. The toll of the COVID-19 virus in care homes has been horrific. The traumatic effects on staff are as yet un-measured.  The fear, still prevalent in older people living at home alone (and together), continues to create a barrier to them living the kind of socially connected lives that would help combat loneliness, isolation and its attendant health issues.

Loneliness has been identified as being as bad for health as smoking. But how much greater will the risk of it be when even the minimal support systems they previously had access to and which helped, are now unavailable?

So how many people visit the GP just for company? In a survey by The Campaign to End Loneliness, GPs were asked how many patients they believed came to talk to them just because they were lonely (as much as to get help with their medical needs). The results revealed over three-quarters of those interviewed said they were seeing between one and five lonely people a day. It is clear that tackling isolation, loneliness and mental health issues outside of the NHS (and in the community) would ease this burden on the GPs giving them more time for medical issues.

This is why Magic Me has been working for over 30 years to combat ageism and promote intergenerational connection as a way of doing so. Their projects in care homes, other care settings (such as extra-care and sheltered housing), and with older people living independently in the community, mean this charity has seen first hand the benefits of bringing younger and older together.

A recent project in Waltham Forest saw young adult neighbours working with care home residents and artists to create the Inside Out Festival. The festival was explicitly designed to showcase what people inside a care setting could do creatively and the works of art, designed to be shown to passers-by, demonstrated that a care setting could be an artistic one – and create a new impression and a different kind of invitation to ‘come inside’. By opening up these spaces in a different way, misconceptions, fears and prejudices are challenged. Younger people become less afraid of what their future selves might experience and have a more positive attitude to older people.

One of the younger people involved demonstrated this saying, “These individuals are still important and have interesting things to say and we as a younger generation can still learn from their experiences.”

The older participants also reflected on their experience – this particular quote stands out – summing up that they didn’t see their lives as over, that there was more to come and more to enjoy, “We’re not all made in one go, we keep on being made. There are always new chances.”

We need to counteract ageism directed at those in the care system but we also need to counteract the ageism within the NHS itself. We need to accept (as a group of 1,400 bioethicists recently wrote to the White House) that, “any discrimination based on age, disability or wealth would be immoral. A patient’s age may be part of a medical evaluation but it cannot be in itself a sufficient criterion to refuse treatment”. We must show the value of those people – to demonstrate to wider society, that old age is about more than loneliness, dementia, diminishment and that by opening up to creativity and new thinking we can continue to have much to offer.

Another Magic Me project regular said: “Magic Me has made us feel valued – it’s about people and about life. To write and to contribute from an individual point of view. Every time I look back I feel valued.”

Challenging the ageist assumptions that older people are valueless and therefore OK to ‘cull’ is vital for all of us. The value is not just in their creativity, their desire to learn new things but also in the example they set by doing so. In the intergenerational sessions, Magic Me organises with children in care homes, the children come away with very changed attitudes to what it means to be old. Their feedback often focusses on surprise at the humour, creativity, kindness of the older people. They cherish the artistic partnerships formed. In turn, this sets them up to internally counteract the ageist stereotypes encountered in society.

In a Magic Me project, where school pupils worked together with older people, several of the children reflected on how they had learnt about empathy across social and generational divides. One year 5 pupil said, “I learned about my community that they are kind, calm and respectful to other people.”  What a fabulous gift to give as a starting point for a young person just beginning to explore the community outside of their own home.

In the report Age-Old Question, the Royal Society of Public Health says that growing up with positive ideas of ageing will help young people, in their turn, age better and potentially add 7.5 years to their life expectancies over those who have negative stereotypes of ageing.  They also suggest that to combat ageism we need to foster intergenerational connections, which has been the continuing mission of Magic Me, throughout the current pandemic. Their At Home Together programme has prioritised this, and they continue to adapt and flex to the changing circumstances and the insights of the participants, partners and artists involved. As Director, Susan Langford says: “If we cannot connect generations together physically, we can work to connect them imaginatively”.

Magic Me is an arts charity that brings the generations together to build a stronger, safer community.

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