The role of culture in active ageing. Best practices from the Netherlands.
“You are only as old as you feel”. The words are those of a sovereign who is young at heart: Queen Elizabeth of England. As she prepared to celebrate her platinum jubilee – after 70 years on the throne – just before turning 95, she politely declined the “Oldie of the Year” prize awarded by Oldie magazine, which each year presents the accolade to retirement-age citizens who have distinguished themselves for civil merit. Our psychological age supports our biological age, and our perception of wellbeing. The mind plays an important role in the culture of youth, which includes curiosity, allowing our hearts to be warmed by feelings, and cultivating hobbies and projects. In short, loving oneself. Those that are active are 30% to 50% more likely to feel young, according to a recent study by Alex Zhavoronkov of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in California.
It is an issue that affects broad swathes of the Western world. And biological, psychological and social wellbeing, not to mention inclusion, are crucial factors for social quality and public spending where autonomy for elderly and older age groups is concerned.
But what role does Art play in all this?
Beginning with the pioneering studies conducted by Lars Olov Bygren from the Eighties onwards at the Department of Social Medicine of Umea, science has also sought to find objective correlations between cultural participation and longevity. And culture lengthens our lifespan.
The outcomes of these studies allowed the team to publish a landmark study in 1996 in the British Medical Journal, proving greater longevity amongst those leading an intense cultural life. From that moment on, much research, particularly in Northern Europe (Konlaan 2000, Hyppa 2006) and Canada (Iwasaki 2006), lent credence to the hypothesis, while advancing a number of theories on the biological mechanisms involved.
But besides how long we will live, the question researchers are really posing is how we will live those last years, in a shift from purely biological data to actual quality of life. The role of art and culture on this front is becoming even more interesting, and the Wagnerian crescendo of studies in the last 20 years has investigated this relationship in some depth.
Cultural participation, which stimulates cerebral and cognitive functions and social inclusion with tangible biological effects on the nervous-endocrine and immune systems, can be a resource for promoting good health and resilience, particularly in the wake of the pandemic which has affected the more fragile and left visible wounds in the twilight years of man’s relationships.In this respect, it is also worth noting the work of British researcher Daisy Fancourt at Oxford University. In 2018, her longitudinal study underscored the role played by different forms of cultural engagement in countering cognitive decline. In so doing, she proved that – regardless of other demographic, medical and social factors – visiting museums, galleries and exhibitions, as well as attending plays, theatre or opera performances, are actually linked with less decline of cognitive functions in adulthood.
Research in Holland and Italy
If we instead shift the focus to cultural policies, where do culture and active ageing actually meet? The Creative Ageing study, conducted between 2020 and 2021 by the Dutch Embassy in Italy in conjunction with Bologna-based company BAM! Strategie Culturali in response to a “call for projects”, intercepted more than 130 projects all over Italy: a final report showcased the characteristics of the Italian ecosystem, revealing an extraordinary number of best practices when the policies of the two countries were compared.
First and foremost it is worth highlighting certain networks whose continuity sets them apart, as well as their impact and ability to build international relations (Musei Toscani per l’Alzheimer and Dance Well).
This mapping also revealed projects with less visibility nationwide, but which are still firmly rooted in their local areas. They include the free workshops for the elderly held since 2005 by Compagnie Malviste of Milan, with “artistic residencies” in holiday resorts and a specific area of the work dedicated to people with Alzheimer’s. In the Naples area, Anziani Guide della Storia (“elderly history guides”) involves the ADA (Association of Rights for the Elderly) training up older citizens as tourist guides for the town of Ercolano.
European, trans-sector, innovative projects point to potential ways forward: they include FUSION, in which designers and makers develop bespoke textile products using digital production and co-design as an active ageing solution, and Longevicity, which aims to foster social inclusion in urban contexts by assessing walkability, or accessibility, comfort and safety for the elderly.
In Holland, Welfare policies which embrace Culture are innovative and focus on ageing with dignity, a fact borne out by the three programmes being run by the Ministry of Health, Wellbeing and Sport: combatting loneliness through networks and local alliances between the social sector and businesses brought together under a National coalition against loneliness; improving assistance facilities by looking after premises and training staff; and attention for domestic quality of life, with training programmes for caregivers and volunteers.
Cultural Funds play a key role in supporting projects and fostering international cooperation. In particular, the Fund for Cultural Participation (Fonds voor Cultuurparticipatie) and the Creative Industries Fund NL (Stimuleringsfonds Creatieve Industrie) have embarked on creative ageing programmes such as Age Friendly Cultural Cities 2017-2020, which work in conjunction with cultural institutions to encourage cities to improve active cultural participation of the elderly. The “open call” Designing a Community of Care funded development projects and strategic visions for neighbourhoods which, as a result, are healthier, more alive and more inclusive, generating new forms of community assistance. This in turn stimulates partnerships between medical assistance providers, residential care companies and groups of designers, architects and creatives.
Thanks to its support for these programmes, Holland is seeing the emergence of a number of best practices. Since 2013, museums have offered a programme for people with dementia and their carers called Unforgettable (Onvergetelijk): after starting out at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam and Van Abbemuseum of Eindhoven, today it features a permanent network of 12 museums throughout the country. Guided tours and workshops on some of the museum’s exhibits stimulate discussion, story-sharing, recollections, associations and ideas.
Since 2014, writing has been harnessed as a creative tool by The Elderly and Stories (Ouderen en Verhalen), the result of a joint venture between Vitalis rest homes and the production company Wintertuin. Young people and writing enthusiasts visit the facilities to break up the monotony with new stories (The writer in residence), they organize programmes for promoting eighty-something talents (The house of stories), or they turn centres for the elderly into theatres for shows, conferences and workshops (The great literary festival). The problem of loneliness and depression is taken seriously: one’s own writing and that of others, or sharing stories, allow participants to be a part of the world again. The project’s slogan, “Prose instead of Prozac”, conveys this idea in a to-the-point manner.
The cultural funds are used for design projects which have yielded initiatives that foster social innovation and business courses. They include Klusplus (2019), chosen from the open call Designing a Community of Care: resembling a jobs office for the elderly, it was developed by project leaders Manon van Hoeckel and Nicky Liebregts in conjunction with the Humanitas Foundation. It is based on the realisation that the risk of loneliness and being marginalised increases when people feel they no longer make a contribution towards society.
The Alzheimer Empathy collection includes smart products created by designer and nurse Gerjanne van Gink, such as the ADS mirror, which helps with daily routines through mirroring: when the user picks up the toothbrush or hairbrush, a video is screened on the mirror, showing the user how to brush their teeth or comb their hair.
All are projects which are part of Holland’s enabling policies but are still absent in many other countries.
Catterina Seia with
Federico Borreani, Chairman of BAM! Cultural Strategies and head of the Creative Ageing project
Massimo Finistrella, Assistant Project Manager and Co-Author of the Creative Ageing report