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Members of CoisCeim Broadreach performing as part of the Bealtaine Festival this year Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

Column Lessons I learned from working with older people

The business of ageing is often framed in terms of the financial or physical wellbeing of ‘old’ people – Dominic Campbell says it’s a mistake to lump our seniors into these categories alone.

I’M CURSED TO spend large parts of my days listening to people talk nonsense. I work in the arts. There’s a lot of nonsense spoken in the art world.

Lately I’ve been working in the Health world. More nonsense. I’ve been working with older people, and therefore in the growing field of Gerontology – the study of old age. Is nonsense spoken there? You’d better believe it.

“Gerontology” has developed as an area of study because simply considering old age from the viewpoint of a single academic discipline offers only a limited perspective on how we now grow older. Age isn’t a medical condition, nor is it merely about health which is critical at all  ages. Neither social studies, nor humanities, nor a cultural perspective provides a fully informed view. So they all come together in the Gerontological soup. It’s quite a gathering of specialised areas. A lot of specialised language.

Now that Gerontology is a nicely maturing 30-year-old practice it’s developing its own buzzwords. Take the phrase “Demographic Dividend”. It comes from a good place. It describes the potential contribution that an ageing population can make to society.

We’re all living healthier, and in some cases, longer lives. Generally, statistically speaking, what seems to happen now is we gradually physically wear out, rather than rapidly become chronic.

Depending on “how you feel yourself” has a lot to do with whether this is good or bad thing, and how the “wearing out” comes about. “How you feel yourself” has a lot to do with whether you’re occupied, engaged, finding new things to stimulate your interest, have access to friends and friendly family. All of which have major effects on your health and your wellbeing, on whether or not you are generally a cheery joy or a cloud of misery regardless of circumstance.

If we feel okay about ourselves, ageing can offer a Leonard Cohen experience

We have tended to see this process of ageing as a completely bad thing. A kind of bleak Charles Dickens workhouse stage of life. But if we feel okay about ourselves there’s no reason why it should be like that. It can offer more of a Mary from X Factor moment. A Leonard Cohen experience.

Which is where Demographic Dividend comes in. Eleven per cent of Ireland’s population are over 65; that’s about 436,000 people. By 2021, this will rise to around 15 per cent with a greater rise in the number of people aged over 80. Many more of us are living longer. Around 90 per cent of people are self-sufficient.  As an ever larger percentage of the population moves into the over 65s bracket, their potential to offer huge contributions to society is becoming evident. They are challenging our stereotyping of old age; asking that we question what “old” is and what we ourselves might become in our old age.

So far so good. Older people are often the glue of community holding grandparent and volunteering roles, increasingly looking after their own parents. They may bring to debates and developments an outsiders view rooted in long experience, or the psychological liberation that comes from a consideriation of legacy rather than  a narrow focus on a career.

However Demographic Dividend is more and more frequently being reduced to cash terms; “Older people have greater disposable income than any other sector of the population”. They’ve paid for their house. They’re not trapped in a mortgage. They have a good pension. If we only perceive the potential contributions of older people in financial terms we become poorer.

“Older people” like any other random grouping – “23 year olds”, or “accountants” for instance – embraces a diverse cross-section of people. Single, married, divorced, widowed, courting, swinging or sleeping around, wouldn’t begin to cover it if I focused merely on the relationship arrangements of the LBGT and heterosexual gang of older people who regularly use my local.

It’s a mistake to think of ‘older people’ as a homogenous gang with silvering hair

It’s the same with the ability of older people to be a dividend in purely financial terms. Some can. Some can’t. No secret, nothing complicated about it. While 80 per cent of heads of households over 65 own their own home, 70 per cent of older people living alone are dependent on social welfare provision.

Older people appear in all shapes and sizes, with all temperaments, and from all cultures. It’s a mistake to think of “older people” as some homogenous gang topped-off with silvering hair and we do our future selves a disservice by doing so. We miss out on diversity, we fail to witness a variety of strategies for living, we reduce our own options.

Over the last six years, through the Bealtaine Festival, I’ve met artists bringing a rich lifetime of experience to their explorations of art form: 101-year-olds turning up to dance class for the very first time with a history in every gesture, 60-year-old poets maturing line by line, 80-year-old former political PR agents now happily playing a mean trad fiddle.

I’ve watched an individual progress from an introductory painting class to a theatre workshop to a dance group to becoming a regular on Dublin’s stage, astonished that such a journey was possible, at her age.

I’ve seen older men arrive cautiously to tell their own story about growing up gay in an Irish town, grow in confidence and stature as their show took wings before an audience, then contribute to their community’s sense of itself as the show toured to New York, Paris, Finland and New Zealand.

I’ve watched a woman who performs her own life story, one with a tough beginning rooted in bitterness, become more vibrant with every public telling. I’ve listened afterwards as audiences were liberated by her telling to tell their own tales, felt the room change as stories unspoken for years were aired, and their tellers breathed more easily.

I’ve heard many people explain how their lives are re-ignited by an opportunity to take part in the arts late in life. “I haven’t cleaned the house for a fortnight, my house is a mess but I feel great”.

So I wonder what this blossoming in later life through the arts might tell those of us heading into older age moment by moment, year on year?

Perhaps it’s that sometimes new discoveries, like those about how we now age, are communicated like baby talk; in bursts of musicality, through movement as often as speech, in a language only just beginning to take shape. Maybe the nonsense we sometimes hear is the noise made by people learning to live fully in older age.

There is still one nonsensical big secret about older people we ignore. Old people they are us, only older. No nonsense.

Dominic Campbell is Artistic Director of the Bealtaine Festival. Bealtaine Festival is the annual nationwide celebration of creativity in older age that takes place across Ireland each May. An unique Irish cultural innovation founded by Age & Opportunity, over 100,000 people took part in 2,500 exhibtions, concerts, and performances this year

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