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1 February 2016

Arts and the loneliness of the long lived

David Cutler
The recent findings by Arts Council England on positive effects of the arts on the happiness and wellbeing of older people are compelling.

Arts Council England recently published compelling findings about the positive effects of the arts on the happiness and well-being of older people. The key findings are:

  • 76% say arts and culture are important in making them feel happy;
  • 57% say they are important in meeting people, and;
  • 60% say the arts are important in encouraging them to get out and about.

This is useful confirmation of what we have all seen and heard. When the Foundation first started working in this field, I noticed that artists would, unsurprisingly, often talk about the art they were creating but older people would almost invariably want to talk about the pleasure they were taking in the new relationships they were forming with other older people and the artists. There is always a special magic when those relationships are with children, so it is fitting that the leading exponent of this work in the UK should be called Magic Me.

These findings need to be combined with the sharp drop-off in participation in the arts among older people, especially aged over 75 and the superb work in recent years of the Campaign to End Loneliness in drawing attention to the disgraceful scale of loneliness combined with its immense effects on health and longevity – . Loneliness is a comparable risk factor to smoking 15 cigarettes a day and worse than obesity.

The Baring Foundation drew attention to the power of the arts in this respect in our joint publication with the Campaign and its funder the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in 2012 Loneliness.  Rather unimaginatively I called it The Role of the Arts in Tackling Loneliness, but you get the message.

We are looking forward to supporting the publication of more evidence of this in the next few months from Northern Ireland. As part of the programme for older people which we jointly fund there, the Arts Council Northern Ireland has had a focus on loneliness and especially in older communities.

What more can be done to use the special power of the arts to tackle loneliness among older people?

  • Health commissioners need to make the link between the arts and improved outcomes for older people and the recent NICE guidance is a major step forward for that case;
  • It is entirely possible to feel lonely in care homes, surrounded by people and there needs to be more arts in these settings too which help to build deeper relationships;
  • There needs to be more attention paid to older men who are both at greater risk of isolation and are less likely to take part in the arts;
  • Artists need to be clear about the importance of building relationships in their participatory work as well as the value of the art produced;
  • Arts venues need to do more to welcome older people in and extend their offer to those who can’t visit them. There are many great examples of how to do this in the Alzheimer’s Society publication which the Foundation helped to produce – Dementia friendly arts

David Cutler

Views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect those of the Baring Foundation