Today (20th March) is Age without Limits Action Day and this year’s theme is #SeeAndBeSeen. Here Elders Programme Producer, Andy Barry reflects on what role an Elders Company can play in challenging stereotypes about ageing and why creative ageing is important to us all.

In 2014, the Royal Exchange started the Elders Company to promote creativity into later life and to challenge stereotypes around ageing.

Ageism exists within our society, and while there is a growing awareness about this, and about calling it out, it can still impact communities and individuals negatively. It’s a form of prejudice that sets us against our future selves. Ageism can adversely impact how we think about older people, which in turn can become internalised and so, as we grow older, can affect how we think about ourselves.

Often in the media and sometimes in the popular consciousness there are two common narratives about ageing, one is of burden and decline – the frail older people in care homes or blocking beds in the NHS, while the other is of the super agers – the older people skydiving or running marathons. The truth is much more nuanced. Older people are individuals and so there is rich diversity and experience amongst our older communities. The Royal Exchange Elders is an opportunity to present a wide range of stories about getting older and to share a range of individual experiences.

I recently asked some of the Elders (who range in age from 60 to mid-80s) about their relationship to creativity, here’s a flavour of what they told me:

“I am learning circus skills at the moment.”

“I craft.”

“I paint.”

“I write.”

“I have made over 120 videos. I have 570 subscribers and over a thousand views per week.”

“I initiated regular Zoom meetings, now called Dreamweavers, and my first podcast is on Spotify.”

“I am currently helping a friend collect audio recordings (with consent) at a local hospice support group to form part of an audio library.”

“I dance round my living room to Sister Sledge!”

“We mend bikes, and use the bits we can’t mend as items for visual art. It works!”

“It’s our creativity that the world is made up of.”

“Without creativity our world would not advance. It would be stale.”

The fact we have an Elders Company at the Exchange means we can include older people in decision making and Leadership roles, for example in our Elders Leaders programme. We can also create intergenerational spaces, for example our recent INTERGEN COMEDY WORKSHOP saw Elders and Young Company members coming together to create and present their own comedy stand-up routines. Working creatively in an intergenerational group can help people discover what they have in common. There are few spaces outside of our family settings where we can meet and talk in mixed-generational groups, and the absence of this can lead to intergenerational misunderstandings or stereotyping.

I also see the benefits for the older people who are taking part in The Elders. The Elders regularly tell me that being creative gives them a sense of purpose and fulfilment and that by taking part in the arts they are reminded that they still matter in the world at large. The Arts are increasingly having to prove their value, but I see every day how being creative helps people cope with changes in their lives. As we age, these changes might include the loss of a life partner, personal health challenges, disability, financial worries or caring responsibilities. Building confidence and resilience through creative endeavour empowers people to deal with these types of challenges and is just one compelling reason to value creativity as we age.

We also know that older people can often disappear from our collective narrative. The Centre for Ageing Better report that “Just 1 in 4 TV ads feature characters aged 50 or older and one in 20 feature characters aged 70 or older”. Similarly, the report Cast aside: Exploring the presence of older characters in British films states “The number of older characters on our screens does not reflect the age profile of the population” (Centre for Ageing Better, 2023) so creating opportunities for older people to be be seen in the arts is also important

The theme of this year’s Age Without Limits Action Day is #SeeAndBeSeen and I’m proud to say our Elders are definitely visible. Since 2014, The Elders has taken on a life of its own. It regularly involves over 100 people in our public access programme Elders Mondays. Each year we recruit a new cohort of people to our Elders Company, who go onto become graduates and continue to engage with us. Our Leaders programme provides training and mentorship to graduates who are now producing their own work. We have two legacy companies ExEl (meaning Ex-Elders) and the Dominoes & Dahlias Team (who first met through our inaugural Dream Project 2022). ExEl describe themselves as: “a group of emerging artists and writers challenging the stereotypes of ageing, being creative and having fun.” It’s exciting and inspiring to see all this activity, and to see the care they take of each other, to creating supportive, safe and inclusive spaces to take part and make art together.

As we age, we might face different barriers to being creative. These might be financial, or a result of changing access needs, and / or having the confidence to join in. However, if people are supported to overcome these, then taking part can be both transformational for them, but also for others. Working with the Elders at the Royal Exchange has certainly challenged me to face my own internalised ageism, to understand more about what it means to age, to get curious about how I want to age creatively and what that might look like. As the programme has grown and we’ve got better at including a more diverse range of people to properly reflect the city-region we live in, I have also learnt more about the disparities faced by older people according to their background and experience and as a result of other protected characteristics they might have.

This year is The Elders tenth anniversary at the Royal Exchange Theatre, and we are currently planning ways to celebrate what has been achieved as well as think about what the next ten years of The Elders will look like. Britain has an ageing population, The Centre for Ageing Better report that “There are over 11 million people aged 65 and in ten years’ time this will have increased to 13 million people, 22% of the population” so creating spaces for older people to keep contributing and keep being creative feels vitally important. We all have a reason to invest in this, we are all ageing and none of us will want to fall victim to ageism ourselves. I’m excited to see what the next ten years holds and what I can look forward to!

In concluding, it feels right to give the last word to one of our Elders, so, this is from Lorraine…

I need people to understand that older people have so much to contribute to the creative life of our world and communities and not just to be written off. I need opportunities to learn and grow just like anyone else. Just because I look older, I am still the same person that I always was, perhaps a little wiser, a little less driven, a little less energetic but I am still me.

Lorraine, Elders Leader