Arts Professional – Active Ageing By Nick Ponsillo

Posted on July 2, 2015

In an article just published in Arts Professional, Nick Ponsillo, Manchester Camerata’s Head of Learning and Participation reports on his recent study tour to Japan, where he shared his experience through our Music in Mind project and learnt more about how the Japanese are using the arts to help older people.

This April a group of UK arts professionals travelled to Japan to share experiences of working with older people and to gain a deeper understanding of Japan’s approach to an ageing society, discuss shared challenges and explore future collaborations.  Expertly organised by the British Council Japan, Baring Foundation and Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, it was a fascinating and inspiring week which challenged us all.

Active ageing is one of the most important social agendas globally and particularly pertinent in Japan –  currently 25% of the population (32,000,000) is 65+, and 4,600,000 people with dementia with another 4,000,000 likely to develop dementia in the coming years (the figure in the UK is currently approx. 800,000 diagnosed with dementia).

With the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics on the horizon there is a tangible desire to create a strong cultural Olympiad with London 2012 cited as a model of excellence. Tokyo is looking to emulate London and use 2020 as a catalyst to galvanise support for the role of the arts in wider society and how the arts can respond to the growing population of older people, which by 2020 is set to see more than 29% of people 65 and over.

There is a clear desire amongst the organisations, artists and businesses we met for the arts to become a more accepted and widespread community resource. There is already some longstanding and fantastic activity taking place but my impression was that this is in unconnected pockets. There seemed to be a real need for a greater connection between these pockets to really drive the agenda and make a significant impact.

Since 2012 Manchester Camerata has been working with people living with Dementia in both care homes and community settings across the North West.  Music in Mind has been uniquely developed so that music therapists and professional musicians work as co-facilitators, using a group model based on creative improvisation to enable self-expression at all stages of the illness. Our partners Alzheimer’s Society, Age Friendly Manchester, Tameside Public Health, and The University of Manchester are key to the ongoing development and success of this work.

Crucially research and evaluation is embedded within Music in Mind and we have a growing evidence base that the project improves quality of life for people living with dementia, develops relationships between people with dementia and their carers and reduces the use of medication. The way in which the project operates, the fact that research is a core part of the activity and, working alongside researchers, clinicians and artists, the way in which Music in Mind functions cross sector, was of particular interest and is principally the work I shared.

Measuring impact was a key line of enquiry during workshop sessions. There is a sense that to justify the role of the arts research needs to be quantitative. This led onto further discussion about the right type of research relationships to fit the right type of project activity. This is something that we have been discussing in detail with our colleagues Prof John Keady (University of Manchester) and Dr Christine Milligan (Lancaster University) and how the current methods don’t really get to grips with explaining the impact of Music in Mind for the person with dementia. To begin to tackle this we have been awarded an Economic and Social Research Council grant for a CASE Studentship which will see a PhD student develop an ‘in the moment’ multi-sensory assessment tool for Dementia.

It was evident from a presentation by Takehito Tokuda around the Fujinomiya City dementia friendly community that this is an area in which Japan is more developed in their thinking and implementation; dementia isn’t the problem, our communities are. It was exciting to see that business, community, government and third sector organisations are working together on a number of holistic initiatives that move way beyond an awareness of dementia to tackle a range of issues from the labelling, fragrance and bottle design of shampoo to effecting a total transformation in the way society thinks.

One of the most memorable visits was our trip to the Saitama Art Theatre, meeting members of Saitama Gold Theatre.  Established 10 years ago by Yukio Ninagawa the renowned Japanese director, over 1200 older people with little or no theatre experience auditioned for a resulting 48 members to form a new theatre company who took part in training with Mr Ninagawa five days a week, four hours a day for an initial period of 12 months. The company are producing work of the highest artistic standards, gaining an international profile. We witnessed a short excerpt from their current production of Richard II, which was breath-taking. It was a privilege to share such an incredible experience and hear company members explain how being involved has made such a positive impact on their lives, including overcoming paralysis. Their integrity and constant search for the highest artistic standards as individuals and a company was an inspiration, left many of us speechless and was evident in a modest comment by a 90 year old member – ‘we don’t consider ourselves to be professionals, yet!’

I left Japan full of inspiration and determination. I had witnessed some incredible work and encountered many special people and artists working with older people for genuine and selfless reasons in the sincere belief that the arts can and should play a significant role in society and support people to make positive changes in their own lives. Our small sample of this work in Japan demonstrated to me that these pockets of activity are primed to become more mainstream. I feel sure that this belief and desire will be realised to its absolute maximum by a united arts community and nation in the lead up to, during and post a successful Tokyo 2020.