There is no exact definition of creative ageing. Every individual is different and every individual ages differently. Ageing is inevitable but some of the negative connotations of ageing are not an inevitability. There are creative ways to slow down the ageing process. Creative ways to make the ageing process a whole lot more fun. Different creative ways to suit different individuals as they age. That is why this whole topic is so hot right now. Care homes are facing the realities. The medical profession is entering the discussion. There’s a sense out there that we could be doing so much more, that we are definitely not doing enough. And pioneering groups like Grand Gestures in Gateshead are blazing a trail through this forest of opinion. Grand Gestures is a dance collective for older people (although age is not an issue and does not define them. It is not something the members ever discuss) that has been meeting now in Bensham, Gateshead for four and a half years. They present happenings (they don’t like to call them performances) all over the region. Together, they’re doing something new in a way that has never been done before. And the spotlight is on them.
To be honest, they did not invite the spotlight. They did not seek out this level of attention. They meet because they love what they do with a passion. They have nothing to prove. They are not a social experiment. Yes, they’re happy to share what they do with others – not to gain recognition, but because they want others to discover the joy that they have discovered.
“I feel alive here. My mind is set free.” Lilian
I could give you a factual piece about numbers, names, ages, location, but that would not convey any of what I want to share with you. What I need to share with you. And yet it’s always hard to find the words when you’ve experienced something magical, like I’ve witnessed today.
Is this yoga? Is this dance? Who is this teacher? Who are these people? There are no labels to describe what is going on here. There is no box to neatly file this group away in.
“This group is different from everything else.” Allan
Because in this spacious, dated, cold church hall (the hottest day of the year and we still had to have the heaters on!) on a Friday afternoon in July, eleven people gathered with their teacher, who prefers to be seen as a facilitator, and touched my soul. They didn’t look anything special. All pretty normal. Dressed in everyday clothes. Joining the emerging circle of green plastic chairs. Chatting about daily life.
I began to wonder what I was doing there.
We were invited to find our sit bones and get comfortable on the edge of our chairs. To start to connect with our body. Ah yes, chair yoga. I had the vocabulary for that. Except that this passed through chair yoga and carried on. Carried on into really listening to our own bodies, really going with the flow of what our bodies were prompting us to do. Swaying in every direction, any direction. Allowing our arms to move freely. To take the movement we had all been performing in unison and make it our own. Interpret it in our own unique way.
It was the same when we were invited to stand. Starting with a forward bend, and then travelling on through. I glanced around. Everyone was completely comfortable with this. Lost in their own world. This was new territory for me. Familiar and yet unknown.
And then we were walking. In any direction. In every direction. In any way. In every way. I caught a glimpse of how liberating this could be, if only I could ditch my inhibitions. There was a lightness in the air, a glorious sense of freedom.
“I feel freer here. There is no right or wrong way to do it.” Jennifer
Paula, the teacher, spoke exactly the right words of encouragement and admiration into the creative space. Not teaching but facilitating. Not instructing but creating the opportunity. She comes from a dance background and moves authentically and beautifully – she trained at Laban and has performed in numerous settings. She loves yoga too and also teaches yoga throughout the week.
“Paula is a great motivator to get people moving.” Kevin
The time came for Improvisation. Which everyone else in the room apart from me seemed to be eagerly looking forward to, rather than dreading. There was no obligation to take part. Watching was OK. But most of the people there were keen to enter the circle and join in. Not me. This was a step too far for me. So I watched. And was deeply moved. If I was someone who ever cried, then this would have moved me to tears. This was a special space. A place of vulnerability and complete trust. Where people could come and be themselves. Really be themselves. Express themselves in a way that they cannot anywhere else in life.
“Until I came here, I had never ever been taught how to express myself.” Ann
What I saw before me was not technically brilliant or expertly choreographed. And yet it was a work of art just the same. If dance is simply expression of an inner world through movement, then this was a perfect example of dance.
“I came because I was told this was an improvised movement class. I didn’t know what to expect but I thought it would be a good way to exercise without it being too regimented.” Cynthia
You can tell how much this group means to every single person present. This session is an important part of their week. They are all committed to being there. They would do everything they could to get there. These individuals from all walks of life, all levels of experience, had learned how to have confidence in their bodies, to understand what their bodies were capable of.
“When I come here, I’m somebody else. I can forget who I am outside of this place.” Walter
So what makes this group so special?
“Fitness. Fun. Fellowship. Sparking creativity.” Norma
This is all about creative ageing. I don’t know all the research. Paula Turner is the one to ask about that. She’s come to this session direct from delivering a presentation about nature’s time and the language of the body at the Clinical Skills Department at Northumbria University. However, I do believe Norma has hit the nail on the head here. This group ticks all the boxes. It’s a wonderful way to keep fit. It is a lot of fun. There’s a strong sense of community. And that spark of creativity – that is so important. That’s what Equal Arts is all about, the charity that has supported this project from the start with funding from the Big Lottery– bringing creative opportunities to older people, recognising that older people have a massive amount to offer the world through their creative gifts. And that that spark brings life and self-worth and purpose and a twinkle in the eye to individuals of any age.
The group has seen that spark at work in the lives of those with dementia in a very real way. When they visit care homes and bring what they do to the residents, their creativity creates a spark. Lives are changed. Individuals come to life in a way that carers have not seen before. Our bodies keep all our stories buried deep inside and sometimes music and movement can be the key to unlock a story and bring it to the surface. This is an absolute joy to witness.
Paula is so grateful to be able to work with these very special people. Whatever she has given to them over the past four and a half years, they have given her back so much more.
“There’s a wonderful reciprocity. Everyone here has an amazing capacity.” Paula
Let’s let Tommy have the final word.
I’m not going to tell you how old I am, because that doesn’t matter. What matters is that I started coming here four and a half years ago. I had never danced before. And now I love dancing! I just love it!
Image credit: Frances Anderson