Creativity is not just a tick on the wellbeing checklist

14 April 2023
By Anne Gallacher Director Luminate

This blog is a discussion piece adapted from a presentation at Luminate’s Arts and Ageing Gathering which took place in March 2023.

Three years on from the start of the pandemic – and a few months since Luminate’s tenth birthday – the importance of creativity in our lives as we age has possibly never been talked about more.  In Scotland we’ve seen growth in creative ageing programmes over the last decade; more artists and cultural organisations are working collaboratively with more community, health and social care colleagues, and with and for more older people.

The experience of the pandemic increased our awareness of the positive impacts of the arts in terms of health and wellbeing, and the growth in the profile of social prescribing has similarly led the arts sector to consider new routes to working with communities and to securing funding.  There are some great positives here, and some wonderful new and evolving creative ageing programmes, but I also have some concerns.

Does the arts sector’s growing focus on the health benefits for older people of arts participation risk over-emphasising some of the health conditions that can come with ageing?  And in turn, does this risk inadvertently contributing to a medical model of ageing?

Arts and health programmes are absolutely needed. They are important and impactful, and some of Luminate’s work definitely falls into this arena.  But ageing is about so much more than our health.  What happens when we start to measure the success of creative ageing programmes by things like the number of GP visits that someone makes, or whether someone feels less lonely?  These things are obviously important to someone’s quality of life, but so are self-expression, a sense of identity, story-making, imagination and joy.

And yet increasingly creative ageing programmes are being described almost entirely in terms of the health and social benefits.

Luminate’s work – like the creative ageing practice of many colleagues in the arts sector – is wide-ranging and engages people in many different ways.  We regularly support older, early career artists for example, many of whom have discovered their artform in later life or have returned to an artform after a gap of many years. These artists may very well agree that their art contributes to their wellbeing, but I also suspect that this isn’t the main reason why they do it.

Other countries can offer thought-provoking examples of creative ageing. In a UK arts research trip to Japan a few years ago we met Yukio Ninagawa, a renowned theatre director who became Artistic Director of the Saitama Arts Theatre at the age of 70.  He was 80 when we met him. He set up a theatre company of older performers – none of whom had performed before – in response to a series of artistic questions: what difference would it make to a production if the performers were older people?  Were there things that older performers – even those with no performance experience – would bring that younger performers, however talented and highly trained, never could?

This was such a different starting point from where our conversations around creative ageing seem to be now in the UK.  When we met some of the performers and heard them speak about their experience, there is no doubt that some of what they described would be aligned with the health and social outcomes that we talk about in the UK, but that wasn’t the purpose of the company nor the reason why the older performers auditioned and signed up.

Wellbeing was not the measure of the company’s value. In Scotland, I believe we should take care not to inadvertently suggest that ageing is a medical process and that the role of the arts is simply to ‘fix’ the challenges of a particular condition.  Of course we have some great examples of projects and companies that are more aligned with Ninagawa’s artistic starting point, but as we move forward after the pandemic I think the language about creative ageing in Scotland is changing, and we need to be careful about this.

I believe that we need to think about developing creative ageing practice so it reflects and responds to the diverse experiences of ageing. We need to offer creative opportunities that enable older people’s wide-ranging ambitions to be fulfilled – from those who want to sing in a choir in their local community to older artists who want to develop professional skills.

Ultimately I think we should be working to ensure that every older person in Scotland is able to have the cultural life they want – and have the right – to have.