Ageing, activism and arts

Activism (taking action to effect social change) comes in many forms.


Frustrated by the lack of action, this group of older Mancunians from Levenshulme highlight trip hazards and other problems that might cause older generations mobility problems. Linked to Manchester’s Age Friendly team, they form part of a wider movement of older people committed to making sure their city is a great place to grow older. You can read more of their stories here,  Living in Manchester: Our Age friendly city

Ive written elsewhere about the social impact of arts and ageing, including reflections from visits to Japan and Hong Kong.  There’s much to learn from overseas but its work locally that gets me really excited.  Manchester has over 150 volunteer Culture Champions, advocating for and shaping the culture of their city.   They are currently developing and programming Punk Panels, cultural takeovers or hijacks, community-based events and their must-listen radio show (Vintage FM at AllFM) has become an important space where they seek to tell a different story about ageing and be heard.


One of my first ever conversations with a Culture Champion several years ago sticks in my mind.  At a “Valuing Older People” meeting I asked the lady sat next to me, “what do you want from culture and cultural organisations in your city?”  The response was “More for my generation. I mean I’m far more club night than tea dance“.  Brilliant and quite right too, my well-worn assumptions rightly overturned.  In fact, the MyGeneration Clubnight (for over 50s) has been running in the city for several years.   After all, this is Manchester.

For 6 months until February, I was on secondment to the Greater Manchester Ageing Hub as  part of its plans for public service reform and devolution.  Alongside leads for housing, transport, health and social care, research, urban planning and older people themselves, we worked and continue to work together with a shared ambition to make our city-region a great place to grow older.  Its the most collaborative work I’ve done across sectors and I’ve observed an ever-growing consensus to effectively rewrite the story of old age (from a narrative of loss or deficit to one of aspiration and growth).  But there’s a problem.   No-one is sure how to do this and whilst we figure it out, the stereotypes persist (including my least favourite, below).





So, enough already.  Its time to show, not tell.  This is where the arts really come into their own.  Last month, alongside Vintage FM live broadcasts, we bought together over 250 partners, practitioners, policy makers and older people to launch the GM Ageing Hub.  This report shares what we’ve learnt and our big ambitions and aspirations for age friendly culture and change.

Age Friendly Culture Flyer - Artwork

We’re asking how can we draw upon the lived experience of older people and some of the most creative, imaginative writers, artists and performers living and working today? How can we show and tell a different story, support action and mobilise change?

Slowly, perhaps, the tide in the cultural sector is starting to turn.  There are already brilliant organisations leading change, including entelechyarts, Luminate festival and West Yorkshire Playhouse and the Baring Foundation has over several years now, imaginatively and consistently supported arts and ageing.  But finally, its going mainstream.  Arts Council recently announced the successful projects to its Celebrating Age fund and earlier this month, the Turner Prize confirmed that it had changed its rules to allow artists of any age to be eligible to apply  (previously you had to be under 50).  About time.  Its a start, a recognition from the arts sector that ’emergence’ and creativity occur and should be supported throughout our lives (some of our greatest artists are producing their most powerful work in later life).  But there’s still a long way to go.

Final thoughts go to John Hyatt.  I met John for the first time last year when I chaired a session at the Whitworth about ‘the emerging artist’ with Whitworth Young Contemporaries (under 25s) and older artists, including John (artist, musician, professor and one third of the infamous 1980’s post-punk band, The Three Johns).  He showed a  film of his band performing back in 1980s cut seamlessly (like travelling through time) with film of them performing today.  If they were good then, they’re great now.  Reflecting on ageing and experience, he suggests we’ve been caught up and bound by the words of the past.  If we want to shift the narrative, we probably have to use new words. So lets not speak of the old, elderly or aged but instead lets talk of the deeply experienced, the later lifers and the enriched.












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