Monday, 19 November 2012

Guest post: "What kind of old do you want to be?", by Rebecca McLaughlin (Ireland)

The world population is getting older and older. And the Irish Prime Minister´ambition is for his country to be the best small country in the world in which to grow old with dignity and respect. Rebecca McLaughlin, another of my colleagues at the Kennedy Center, is the coordinator of Bealtaine, an arts festival which for the last 17 years old has been examining the role of creativity as we age. Bealtaine hosts a month long programme every May, with over 3000 events, inviting older people to engage with arts and cultural activity as audience, artist, critic and participant. And thus, the conversation Rebecca and I didn´t manage to have last July is now starting on this blog. mv

Bealtaine Festival Launch 2010. Mary Russell from the "Blow the Dust" orchestra (Photo: John Ohle)
What kind of old do you want to be? What kind of society do you want to grow older in? Do you want to continue being creative and enjoy Arts and Cultural activities in your 50’s, 70’s, 90’s? Do you think age is a barrier to creativity?

The Bealtaine Festival is the world’s first festival which celebrates creativity as we age. It takes place every May all across Ireland.  Co-ordinating ‘Bealtaine’ which is now Ireland’s biggest collaborative arts festival, these are questions that come up regularly.  If we are lucky, each of us will enjoy becoming older and continue to live and experience those activities and  life-affirming opportunities which Arts and Culture provide within our communities.

The Bealtaine Festival reaches tens of thousands of people aged 55+ every year, encouraging participation in the Arts as artists, participants, audience and organisers. Through partner organisations ranging from national cultural institutions to libraries, from care settings to hospitals, older people take part in over 3000 events during May including music, theatre, craft, photography, film and literature. ‘Bealtaine’ is the Irish word for May with all its associations with growth, re-birth and new beginnings.

Undeniably, whether you are 5 or 105, access to the arts is a question of equity and citizenship – it is a right, not a privilege.  We know from 17 years’ experience of the Bealtaine Festival celebrating creativity as we age that, amongst other things, greater participation in the arts is important in the development of positive self image and identity for older people. Significantly, it can help build connections and promote social capital.

Ireland is at the forefront internationally of championing creativity as we age and currently nearly 12% of our population is over 65 (over half a million people). By 2041, the number of people aged over 65 is expected to increase by 180% (to 1.3 million). Our Taoiseach (Prime Minister) has outlined the ambition to make Ireland the best small country in the world in which to grow old with dignity and respect.

‘Old’ is a word many struggle with. In our experience if you ask someone what they consider ‘old’, they will invariably say an age 10 years older than themselves! At the festival, we have become more comfortable talking about the process of ageing rather than ‘old’ as some kind of destination at the end of a journey. It is impossible to place people aged 55-105 into one ‘old’ homogenous category. One of the things the festival aims to do is to challenge those stereotypes and negative perceptions about becoming older. We focus on the abilities of older people and embrace their value and contribution to society.

Working on the "Wandering Methods" project during Bealtaine Festival 2012. (Photo: Lian Bell)

With each Bealtaine Festival, we are inspired and delighted by the creative talents rediscovered or new skills learnt by our audiences and by the passion to make art, which for certain generations of Irish people was simply not part of their formal education or world. For our Bealtaine organisers, May has become embedded as part of their annual cultural calendar as a time to focus on their offering to older people. For many of them, ‘Older people’ has become more than an abstract concept and over time sustainable activities and ongoing relationships have developed between cultural institutions and older audiences on many levels e.g. a permanent older people’s orchestra ‘Blow the Dust Off your Trumpet’ based at the National Concert Hall in Dublin emerged out of an original Bealtaine Festival project in 2010. 

The demographic trends are clear- more than one fifth of the world’s population (22%) will be over 60 years of age by 2050 – double the current population. In the USA older people will outnumber children in ten years time and one in three babies born today may expect to live to 100 years. With many of us struggling for new audiences and juggling challenging economics, it is worth considering that the 50+ age group have 80% of the wealth in the US and 75% in the EU.

As societies, radical thinking is called for across the whole range of public policy issues from jobs and health to pensions. How should we address this ageing demographic challenge? How can we remain responsive to the needs and changing requirements of our older population? The ageing of the population and particularly the growing numbers amongst the oldest old has many age-related implications (e.g. increase in incidence of dementia) which calls for innovative and sensitive responses to be inclusive of this population.  As Arts Managers and Curators, we need to reflect the lives of our ageing population and remain relevant to them.  If we are not already doing so, then we should start investing in access and participative opportunities to engage and build relationships with our older audiences.  We occupy a unique position in shaping this future, one day, you and I will be part of these older audiences. 

So, with this in mind......"What kind of old do you want to be?!"

Rebecca McLaughlin has co-ordinated and developed the Bealtaine Festival, Ireland's largest collaborative Arts Festival which celebrates creativity as we age, for the last 5 years. Previously, she was Exhibitions Curator for the temporary exhibitions programme at Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, home to one of Ireland's premiere collections of modern and contemporary art and the unique re-constructed studio of artist Francis Bacon. In the UK, Rebecca was Marketing Manager for the launch of The New Art Gallery Walsall, a pioneering £21 million new gallery space in the West Midlands, home to the UK's first Children's Art Discovery Gallery. She is a graduate of University College Dublin and University of Leicester, UK and is an International Fellow of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at The Kennedy Centre, Washington DC.

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