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Thinking About… Working With Older People

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It is a brilliant development that it is increasingly common to come across creative projects specifically targeting older people. Be it a music project collaborating with a professional orchestra or a craft project in a local church hall, it is now much easier to find participatory work focussed in this area. But what do we mean when we talk about “older people” and are there specific things to take into consideration when working with them?

The only guarantee is diversity…

Whether we define older people as being 50 and upwards, or something older, the age range that we may be describing as “older” can be a range of 30, 40 or even 50 years! This is a period of time long enough to encompass several different generations and an almost infinite range of interests and experiences. Even if you choose to focus upon the more vulnerable or isolated, for example people living with dementia, or those who are living in financial hardship, the only assumption that you can make is that there will be something unique and different about every single group and individual that you work with.

Looking forward as well as back…

Although there can be real richness in working in a way that focuses upon memory and history, it is important to acknowledge that trying new things and having new experiences is just as important for most people in later life. It is essential to value and celebrate the lived experience of each person that you work with, whilst also recognising that this work should not take a solely reflective stance. A desire to engage in new and different ways has value and power at all stages of people’s lives, even for the most vulnerable or frail older people who may be moving towards the end of life and where the form of engagement may manifest itself in ways which may be much harder to quantify and define.

Observe needs but don’t focus on them

It is important to acknowledge that as people get older there may be access needs which become more common, and which have the potential to hinder an individual’s capacity to engage and enjoy if they are not observed and addressed. For example hearing loss, reduced mobility and energy levels are among factors that you may want to consider, as well as more specific needs such as dementia, but never allow these things to become the prevailing force or focus of an activity. In some cases there may be hurdles to be crossed, but with sensitive observation and creativity they need never be insurmountable barriers to participation, fulfilment and fun.

The scope of aim and objective

It is important to have a clear aim for each project and / or workshop as you would do for any piece of work. Interestingly this overreaching objective is likely to go beyond the age of participants. For example to create a specific piece of work, for participants to develop a new skill, for a specific health or social benefit to flourish… Age should be no restriction to the scope or possibility of this.

Why are you here?

Alongside all other considerations that you make when working with older people always keep sight of your own practice, and your aims and aspirations for engaging in a specific project or piece of work. Observing and nourishing what you do and why you do it is crucial because this is what gives you the energy and creative drive to keep doing what you do to the best of your ability. It is also particularly powerful to observe and reflect in this when you are working in contexts where the participants’ needs may require more focus, energy and sensitivity, for example when working with older people living with dementia, or for those at the end of life.