Paul Cann, chief executive of Age UK Oxfordshire, says it is important that older people get involved in the creative arts
I’ve worked in charities for nearly 25 years, since 2009 leading Oxfordshire’s charity for older people and carers. We want to make growing older a triumph not a tribulation. Supporting the surprisingly many who are poor, those with unmet care needs, or those feeling left behind. Whether it’s Zumba Gold, having a laugh over lunch, or helping people discover and love the online world, our work is all about loving later life.
Because it’s tougher than ever to be poor, disabled or on your own. Oxfordshire’s planned cuts are about to flatten a flourishing ‘garden’ of community services from children’s centres to older people’s clubs. Whitehall blames Oxfordshire who blame Whitehall for this. Council and NHS leaders don’t seem to be collaborating to prevent the damage. And the public doesn’t realise what is coming.
Campaigning in children’s and older people’s charities has been hard, pushing uphill. We have made progress. More recognition of children’s special educational needs. Big reductions in child and pensioner poverty. Age discrimination banned. But currently ears seem closed to our protests. Enough is apparently not enough.
What’s the answer ? Keep campaigning and carry on.
We have to get on with life. As an older woman who lost her partner said to me: “I have to act, to prevent the gradual shrinkage of life”. I co-founded the Campaign to End Loneliness five years ago because partner charities recognised that working separately won’t solve the problem of so many feeling abandoned. The Campaign has raised awareness massively, but the heart of the solution lies with us all.
A care home resident said to us: “we think the best way to make people happy is to smile nicely and give them en suite lavatories...but the best way of feeling happy is feeling wanted and needed”. So my mission is to help us celebrate being alive by linking ages, helping people make friends, paint, write, dance, sing, feel wanted.
I have had some lucky breaks in life, including singing in the choir and wonderful chapel of King’s College Cambridge. There I met the extraordinarily gifted composer-singer-conductor Bob Chilcott.
Then three years ago I concluded that to boost the Campaign we needed a new way to tell the old story of loneliness. I fund-raised to commission Bob to compose a choral piece, ‘The Voyage’, nine movements portraying the journey we make through life and sometimes loneliness.
Loneliness is not exclusive to older people of course. Research shows that young adults experience exclusion, low confidence, lack of partner just as acutely. So ‘The Voyage’ is written to be performed by young singers and instrumentalists from our schools and older singers from our communities.
It’s also a community project, bringing students together with older academics, helping older people with breathing difficulties, dementia or stroke survivors to join local singing groups, setting up befriending relationships, doing joint creative writing work.
In these pinched times, we can prove that creative arts cost little and transform health. That writing poems can be as therapeutic as swallowing pills. Well-intentioned officials cutting care and community services are aghast at the damage they are inflicting. We must show them one cost-effective remedy.
The evidence mounts that creative arts prevent health decline. The new ‘Dance to Health’ project here prevents falls and lights up lives. Some GPs are sending chronically ill patients to their local museum to enjoy paintings rather than sit at home or in their waiting-room. Singing groups improve lung capacity in people with chronic breathing problems and combat depression.
As a lifelong asthmatic I know this. And recently I have been incredibly privileged to sing in the nationally acclaimed Birmingham choir ‘Ex Cathedra’. So proud to have sung on their new CD, the rhythmically exciting life-enhancing ‘A Time to Dance’, composed by Alec Roth, inspired by that moving Ecclesiastes passage “For every thing there is a season...”. The fulfilment that experience brought is worth a dispensary of expensive inhalers.
It would be tempting right now to despair of Oxfordshire. To conclude that the vulnerable are on their own, and have to withdraw from life, accepting poor care and less support. No. Now is not the time for withdrawal or defeat. Now is a time for us all, especially those facing tough challenges, to find new connections, new joys. A time to dance surely.
‘The Voyage’ will be performed on Friday March 18 at 19.30 in the Sheldonian Theatre. www.thevoyageproject.co.uk or 07766 103427