Change that leads to better lives

We do not cease to play because we grow old; we grow old because we cease to play.

George Bernard Shaw’s warning is urgent for our ageing population as we gain an extra 2.5 years of life expectancy with every decade that passes.

This astonishing trend and its attendant challenges ought surely to lead to new public investment in arts and culture so that we can continue to “play”. A national drive to mainstream cultural participation. Commissioners all over having the courage to decommission the ‘same-old’ and back ‘art on prescription’. Don’t hold your breath.

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We should worry about this. We are living longer but we are no less free of disability or ill-health in that bonus time. That extended time of struggling with challenges from arthritis to poor breathing to sheer loneliness is not inevitable though. The evidence is building that taking part in cultural activity is not only fun but also improves health and well-being, at any age.

1 in 5 recent mothers have mental health problems, however evidence from one ‘arts on prescription’ scheme show noticeable benefits. In another such scheme 3 out of 4 participants experienced lower anxiety. Another project supported patients with a psychosis to take part in dance; it produced clinically significant improvements in well-being and communication. In Gloucestershire ‘Artlift’ connected patients with arts practitioners over 10 weeks of ceramics, mosaic, drawing, words and music; the result, a 37% drop in GP visits and £576 per patient saved for the NHS. But the Cultural Commissioning Programme in which Gloucestershire took part has paused, and its continuity is uncertain.

Aiming high is vital. Witness the success of the Strokestra (a pioneering stroke rehabilitation partnership between the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and a Hull stroke unit ). Visiting the Life after Stroke Centre at Bromsgrove and hearing its stroke choir which includes survivors who can’t speak but can sing is a life-changing experience, believe me.

For older people the greatest “ill” can be the feeling of being disconnected, aimless, lonely. With that in mind we at Age UK Oxfordshire commissioned the leading composer Bob Chilcott to create a beautiful and profound choral work, ‘The Voyage’, depicting the journey through life and loneliness for young and old alike, sung by younger people alongside older ones. It’s dedicated to the Campaign to End Loneliness , which NDTi has been commissioned to evaluate.

For me this year’s highlight was the Royal Philharmonic Society and Radio 3’s music awards ceremony, where ‘The Voyage’ was one of 3 shortlisted for the ‘Learning and Participation’ award. But that wasn’t the highlight. The real buzz came from the winners, the South-West Open Youth Orchestra (SWOYO), supporting the most talented young disabled people, inspiring new musical instruments and creating new musical forms. Next year SWOYO becomes NOYO: the National Open Youth Orchestra. Aiming high.

There is good news….possibly. A fortnight ago the House of Commons debated the report of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on arts, health and well-being, ‘Creative Health’, published in July, after two years of research and consultation, detailing the impact of the arts and culture on us. It’s an amazing read ( I don’t often say that about Parliamentary reports). Introducing it the co-chair of the Inquiry Ed Vaizey MP said that the arts help us stay well, recover faster, manage long-term conditions and achieve better quality of life. Nowhere is this argument more compelling than on behalf of those who confront disadvantages in life: those whom NDTi is here to serve and work alongside. NDTi’s work to empower people to overcome their personal barriers must surely be grounded in our belief that life is to be lived to the full, and that care and support systems should drive towards that vision rather than simply protect us, helping us survive and subsist but no more.

I’d like to think that the gathering momentum of evidence, the sincere commitment of the protagonists, the verve of so many cultural pioneers, but above all ordinary people themselves, empowered by NDTi’s leadership will trigger real change to put cultural participation in the middle of the care system.

I’d like to feel encouraged by the Culture Minister John Glen’s response to the debate: “I have asked officials to explore the potential to develop a cross-government strategy for arts to deliver increased health and well-being”.

Is it just me being a jaded ex-civil servant who suspects there may be dragging of feet here from a cash-strapped government ? Something about those words doesn’t get my pulse racing. Me, I have often, on Saturday mornings, “explored the potential to develop a strategy” for getting out of bed earlier. And on many a Friday evening I have often “explored the potential to” not have another glass of wine, and thus “to deliver increased health and well-being”.

But away with cynicism. For me this is a serious Campaign for the future, to rank alongside campaigns, for decent care, better transport and so on. To achieve in the words of an older person in the seminal Dulwich Picture Gallery project “something to get up for today, and something different to talk about tomorrow”. Worth fighting for.

Paul Cann is a Board member of NDTI who has 25 years’ experience of working in the voluntary sector with younger and older people facing disadvantages, and also a continuing aspiration to be a better singer.

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