The importance of making activities accessible for older people

Hands weaving paper strips
An older person weaving paper and text

Alex McEwan is an artist who has led a number of Sense arts projects that focus on supporting people with disabilities, harnessing creativity and nurturing confidence. In this post, Alex talks about a project for older people, the bonds they formed, and the incredible access granted by the British Library when project participants visited last year.

We’re constantly told the ‘good’ news, that we’re all living longer. That’s great if the extra years we’re being given are fulfilling, but for many the reality is loneliness and exclusion in a fast-paced world.

Sense asked me to organise an arts project that would focus on the enormous benefits of taking part in a communal activity. With this brief in mind, I set about creating TEXTtile, a ten week arts project aimed at breaking down isolation and connecting local people. Participants were based in Islington, London, were over the age of 55, and had sight and hearing loss.

The importance of making activities accessible for older people has never been more poignant, and will only continue to gather momentum. Older people often live with the challenges of sensory impairment, and many live with additional challenges, such as reduced mobility. But being older, or having reduced hearing or sight, should not spell the end of creativity.

The five groups Sense and I worked with over the past two years – on the TEXTtiles project, and a previous project called Quilt Tales – are testament to a bounty of creativity beneath the surface, waiting to be unlocked with the right support and encouragement. This is something Sense understands, and goes to great lengths to facilitate by working closely with other organisations, encouraging an ethos of inclusivity.

For the TEXTtile group, being part of a community centre, which knew them well and provided transport, was a lifeline. For many, the project became the highlight of their week; missing it would mean missing out!

With a little support and encouragement, the group enjoyed chatting, sharing stories and ideas, and trying something new. When all their efforts came to fruition, the project gave the makers a sense of pride and achievement.

Creating and making with the TEXTtiles group

People on the project felt valued by the group and what it had to offer. It was about making something new, having stories to tell, visiting new places, experiencing new things, and all the time, growing in confidence, both creatively and socially in an inclusive environment.

For these projects, it’s not always an easy start, and meeting new people can be daunting if you lack of creative confidence. In every project I’ve run, these issues are ironed out by about week four, as the group start to gel and form friendships. Shared experience is a huge part of this bonding process. The regular meetings create a structure on which to build new experiences, such as museum visits and trying new creative activities. The confidence gained often spills into other areas of life, with participants more willing to go out for dinner, take a trip to an exhibition, or rediscover a forgotten hobby. Celebrating and valuing the skills of the group members was a very important part of the project, and in the early weeks, was the key to gaining mutual respect and trust.

We crammed a lot of making into our ten week programme including; ink-blowing,  textural exploration, collaging, knitting, paper weaving, vegetable printmaking, tweeting, blogging, storytelling, dancing, singing, poetry reading, quizzing, and we even became the stars of our very own project film!  We worked towards creating a book to celebrate the project.

You can watch the embedded video below or view it on YouTube.

Getting out and about

It was, on reflection, our cultural outings where the real fizz-bang alchemy happened.

We were developing our own book on the project. And if you’re making a book, where to go for bookish inspiration? The library of course! To be honest, it was a bit of a daunting prospect. The British Library is a lot bigger and busier than your average library, but I needn’t have worried.

From the get-go, my proposal to visit the British Library was taken very seriously, and every meeting was productive, with all my questions well-directed to those who could help.

Being invited to meet the British Library’s education team and our guide before our visit was great. Normally I would have to do a recce on my own, but they were keen to understand what I was after, and how they could help.

The British Library team wanted to learn how they could be more inclusive, and were proactive in making our trip happen. They had already had some deafblind inclusivity training, but were keen to see how this could be improved upon. Mark, visitor guide, asked lots of questions and happily collaborated with me to incorporate our art-stops around the library.

Everyone at the British Library was patient and considerate. Our visit would take longer than usual, but they provided us with plenty time for our activities and tea stops. They even let us bring our minibus up to the door. The British Library education team asked for feedback to learn from the trip, and are keen to work with Sense again, building on this relationship.

We had a busy schedule in the library! We achieved a mind boggling amount, including; collecting sound-bites from the water fountain, wax-rubbings from the floor and sculpture surfaces, investigating statues and sculptures through touch, and storytelling. We visited the PUNK exhibition, shared and recorded our memories of the punk era, listened to our favourite children’s books and music, completed postcard feedback, drank some much needed tea, took a tour of the library, and did a testing quiz to finish the trip off.

If you haven’t been to The British Library, I strongly urge you to go and soak in its atmospheric, textural architecture. Creative inspiration seems to hang in the air of this vast nautical-esque cathedral. There’s something for all the senses.

The British Library visit

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A book to be proud of

Our velvet-clad TEXTtile book is now finished. It houses all our hard ‘craft’; workshop creations, stories, thoughts on the project, quotes and photos. We celebrated the project in style, inviting friends, family and special guests, and held a tea party at St. Luke’s Community Centre, which we decorated in our very own homemade bunting.

Room full of people listening to a speech
The finale tea at St Luke’s

The sense of achievement was palpable as the TEXTtile makers took pride in showing of the finished TEXTtile book. The project was a huge success and I have nothing but admiration for the makers who, in many cases, showed courage in the face of the dauntingly unfamiliar. They demonstrated a willingness to persevere in order to try something new and pushed themselves out of their comfort zones and met likeminded people.

The TEXTtiles book

The makers are already talking about what they will do for their next project and are forming an art group. Seeing the enthusiasm and commitment to the project has also encouraged the over 55’s Team at the community centre to run regular group activities for their members. If we can leave a legacy at every venue we do a project, spread the word through our networks, provide training for others and work with cultural institutions, then slowly and surely we can open up the arts to more and more people who can tap into new worlds of wonder.

Huge thanks and congratulations go to Margaret, Joan, Roselynn, George, Myrtle, Natasha, Nicole, Jemimah, Maggie, Violet, Nina, May, Felzi, Irene, Katherine, Elizabeth, Dani, Yemi, Hayley and Kara, all the supportive staff, carers, receptionists, drivers, volunteers and over 55’s team at St. Luke’s community Centre, The Education and Tours Teams at The British Library, The Dickens Museum staff and volunteers, Jack at Square Eyes Film Production, Otter Bookbinding and of course Sense who instigated the project in the first place. Your passionate positivity knows no bounds!


Find out more about Arts & Wellbeing activities with Sense.

Author: Alex McEwan

Alex is an artist who specialises in inclusive and accessible community arts projects, such as Sense's TEXTtile and Quilt Tales.

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