So I’m a month back in the day job(s) in Manchester, re-energised by Clore and with big plans ahead. Some of the most collaborative work I do is as Strategic Culture Lead for the Greater Manchester Ageing Hub, and Age Friendly Manchester, leading the development of and shaping the role of culture in making this city-region a great place to grow older. Theres more about our work here
Its a citizen and place-based approach to ageing; championing agency, active participation and work led by older people themselves, in their communities. The ethos is to work “with and for, not to” local people. Manchester was the UK’s first age friendly city and is widely known as an innovator and leader in this field. Arts and culture has always been part of its vision of positive, active ageing. The more locally rooted and relevant our work, the greater international interest and recognition it receives.
Last week, I attended the World Health Organisation’s International Age Friendly Cities conference in the Hague, to present what we do, exchange learning and work towards joint action with five of the world’s other leading age friendly cities; New York, Suzhou, Bangalore, Frankfurt and the Hague. The key themes, relevant to all the cities, in spite of our differences, were; Diversity, Vitality, Participation and Accessibility.
It was fascinating to hear experiences of urban ageing from across the globe; concerns in Suzhou on the long term impact of the one-child policy and urbanisation on caring for an ageing population; the role and growing importance of apps and tech for connectedness in Bangalore; New York’s steadfast commitment to becoming the most accessible city in the world; Frankfurt’s approach to participatory decision making and policy development and the Hague’s focus on innovation and independent living in a super-diverse city. The conversations were full of generosity, new thinking and all too short – indeed, this is intended to be the start of an international movement committed to future collaboration, exchanges and collective endeavour.
Day two shifted focus to projects and work at a local level. Time for a site visit – we walked through an old slaughterhouse, skilfully transformed into a shared public space/precinct with school, nursery and shops, past recently redeveloped social housing towards one of the most diverse neighbourhoods in the Hague. We passed the “Father Centre” set up a few years ago by a group of Muslim elders concerned about their young people. Today, it is open to and welcomes all. Just up the road, on a fairly busy street, we stopped outside number 154. The two mobility scooters parked outside were the only clue to what was inside.
We were here to see the Living Room project, “Laakse Lente”. Back in 2012, the local community centre closed. Many of the local older residents were disappointed and increasingly worried about creeping loneliness. Where would they go now? Nettie and Leo, the couple who live at No.154 were so frustrated by the inaction and lack of solutions, they decided they would organise something themselves.
So they opened their living room, and continue to open it every weekday morning (10-12) for any local older residents who want to come and meet others. Around 95 people visit each week. “All seniors are welcome. The house is open to all”. They also organise activities each week, but especially in the summer, ” the loneliest time of year, when the city is either on holiday or at the beach.”
Surrounded by the stuff of family life; photos, trinkets and ornaments, they drink coffee, eat cake, chat, argue and laugh. Earlier in the day, we’d heard about how, like the UK, the decline of civic infrastructure was resulting in an increasingly DIY approach to supporting independent living and care in later life across Holland. Leo and Nettie receive donations from local businesses – food, coffee and cash – to support their work.
For many, its a lifeline. Leo spoke movingly of one older man, who had been having dark suicidal thoughts before he found the Living Room. Recently, he handed Leo a card of thanks. It read “Attention is the most beautiful gift you can give anyone else”. Another woman I spoke with proudly showed me the artwork she had given, now hanging pride of place on the living room wall. She said it expressed how “if we are honest, we speak and make each other a little crazy. But that’s home. I’ve found home”
I asked those sat around on sofas and chairs “where would you be if you weren’t here today?” Almost unanimously, they responded, “At home alone, behind the geraniums” I now know this is a Dutch phrase to describe those who, in later life, sit alone at home, staring out of the window at the rest of the world. Its a heartbreaking image and so at odds with the warmth, humour and community in this living room. No geraniums here…
So what can be learnt from projects like Living Room? What relevance might this have to museums and arts organisations?
I would suggest plenty – not least the warmth of welcome, generosity of spirit, grit and DIY determination to get something done. Museums know alot about care – for collections of course, but also I believe, for people and ideas. We live in an age where social connectedness makes the greatest difference to quality of life as we age (above any medical intervention). But museums are more than social spaces, more than living rooms full of interesting stuff. We’re just coming to the end of a large-scale HLF-funded cultural volunteering programme with socially isolated people (including older people) that sheds light on this ; connectedness to others, the past and place, offers new perspectives and purpose.
Evaluation confirms that positive outcomes were underpinned by a strong sense of connectedness to people, local stories and events. The connectedness to human experience over time enhanced the level of self-awareness, belonging, imagination and the ability to narrate and relate better to others and thus improve social relationships.
An age friendly world, as conceived by the World Health Organisation, enables people of all ages to actively participate in community activities and treats everyone with respect, regardless of their age. My trip to the Hague reminded me how critical it is to show we care, to pay more attention and to connect. The international conversations were fascinating and I hope will lead to collective action, but its the living room at no.154 that made the greatest impression and will stay with me for some time.