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Event highlights part two – Older people and cultural participation: where next?

Event highlights part two – Older people and cultural participation: where next?

By Tot Foster, Tim Senior and Stuart Gray, 26th September 2021 

In our last post we revisited the talks given at our July 7th project partner event. In this post, however, we’d like to consider how these talks resonated with our wider attendees. We stopped twice during the event to open up the discussion of the issues raised with our 60 attendees, through a number of breakout rooms.

Breakout Session One

The first of our breakout rooms sought to identify the extent to which the speaker experiences resonated thus far with the audiences and the key points of learning some of the emerging themes. Furthermore, we wanted to crystallise some messaging for those in positions of power about the value of cultural participation activities for older adults.

In our twelve breakout groups, the event attendees, CTC As We Age team, and the speakers took to Google Jamboard to document our thoughts, guided by the following questions.

Jamboard Example From Group 1

Q1: Reflecting on the stories presented and your experiences, what have you learned? 

Firstly, it is important to recognise the diversity of the older people that our project and our community anchors (see our partners) serve. It is easy to think of older adults as a homogeneous group and stereotype their skills, competencies, and challenges. Too commonly when we talk about older adults and their use of digital technologies, we paint by numbers with regards to what they can or cannot do. Yet, the reality is nuanced and in order to identify digital literacies and how to support their adoption of contemporary technology, we require an understanding of their social and cultural lives of individuals and their communities.

Thus, we need to adopt a capabilities-led approach when working with older adults in the community and care settings. Rather than having supporting organisations make assumptions about the digital cultural and art activities for older adults as a broad group, individuals must be granted the autonomy to express and define what areas are relevant to them. This requires us to find ways to better understand individual circumstances and tailor the training of digital skills around them and their unique needs.

One common theme across all of our talks was that of a need for greater inclusion in digital culture and arts activities. Older adults have a desire for greater representation of their issues and interests in the content of these activities. They observe how a lot of effort is put into equipping other groups, such as young people, with the skills, infrastructure, and opportunities to thrive in an increasingly digital society, and question why they are often excluded from these endeavours. Our attendees emphasised the need to recognise that people’s abilities are neither fixed in time nor dictated by age. Older adults can continue to learn and enjoy learning, even when faced with physical and cognitive barriers, and empowering them with digital skills may be able to contribute renewed purpose to their lives.

However, we need to ensure that those who are supporting older adults are themselves capable at facilitating training and access to digital culture and arts participation. In the case of community organisations, care providers and charities, this may involve reflection upon their own digital maturity and equipping people within their organisations to support the older adults they work with. The same is true for any external individuals with whom these organisations collaborate with in order to host digital cultural and arts experiences – i.e. artists, creatives, and technologists. In short, if the supporting organisations have limitations in their digital literacy, these barriers will most likely be inherited by the older adults they serve.

Compounding this are questions about who should deliver digital cultural and arts activities and how these activities should be delivered. Several of the talks broached concepts pertaining to co-design and engaging older people on their own terms. For instance, working with older artists and creatives to deliver training and other activities may inspire other older adults to participate by increasing relatedness. The value of intergenerational work was also raised, with opportunities to foster community through greater empathy and to bring families closer together.

In terms of the how, keeping accessibility at the forefront of activities is vital, particularly during COVID-19. Several of the speakers had emphasised that it is not enough to simply provide older people with the hardware and infrastructure to access digital services, and that focusing training on the access of digital communication skills was a fundamental gateway to other forms of digital arts and culture participation. Several of the speakers described their efforts to train older adults to use tools like Zoom in order to create safe and accessible creative spaces, and to provide opportunities for greater social connectivity. However, they were equally circumspect about the logistical difficulties of hosting arts and cultural activities on Zoom, as well as the challenge of creating the conditions for intimate and emotional engagement.

Q2: What would we want to tell funders, policy makers or others about what we have learned? 

From both the speaker talks and the audience discussions, the value of arts and cultural participation for health and wellbeing was clear. Undoubtedly, this has been accepted for some time, but we continue to observe lethargy in the amount of support received from funders and policy makers.

There were concerns about the nature of projects being funded as being too focused on outcomes and generating tangible end-points at the expense of projects that prioritise empowerment through process. There is a perception that large university led research projects, with an emphasis on generating data or new products or services, takes priority over more intimate arts led projects in the eyes of funders. The main criticism of university approaches, was the lack of sustainability and the lack of resources to continue the work after the projects have finished. One particular grievance was with the funding of projects was the desire to ‘reinvent the wheel’ in the development of new products, which may briefly dazzle funders but in reality are total white elephants that fall short of adoption. The attendees also highlighted that funders also often displayed a lack of flexibility with regards to project timelines and underestimated the necessity and slow moving nature of building trust and relationships between project teams and the communities that they are attempting to embed themselves within.

Greater resources are required to support facilitation of digital arts and culture. Both our speakers and attendees identified artists working in the creative ageing as a key group to support, and more must be done to help them develop cultural competence and to equip them to work with older people with an array of accessibility requirements. There also needs to be recognition that this is difficult work for artists that can be both practically and emotionally intensive, particularly during the hardships of the pandemic, and they themselves need support for their own wellbeing. Greater guidance should be available for those undertaking work with older people in order to better establish their responsibilities and boundaries – often, those delivering arts and cultural activities can find them going far beyond their original brief. We need policy makers to better define support networks in order to protect both older people and those delivering activities.

Funders and policy makers also need to acknowledge the digital divide and the marginalisation of certain communities. The attendees raised the point that individuals are more likely to be involved in arts and cultural activities if they already, to a certain extent, socially connected within their communities. But are these really the individuals who would benefit the most from support? We know that a significant proportion of older people, particularly those in rural communities, those in levels of socio-economic deprivation, and those from minoritised ethnic and disabled backgrounds, are less likely to have access to digital services. Hence, the attendees queried how we can further our inclusivity to target the voices that are still not being heard, nor even know that digital arts and culture work exists. Some attendees recommended lobbying policy makers, particularly at different levels of government, to hasten upgrades to infrastructure and to expand their funding of creative and inclusive spaces in the community – a recognisable location where arts and cultural activities can take place.

Breakout Session Two

Our second breakout session was a little more introspective than the first. We had selected a range of speakers that we felt could provide a diverse array of opinions about the value of digital arts and culture for older adults. We wished to identify the issues that had made the greatest impact upon our attendees, but we wanted to identify whether there were any blindspot issues that had not been discussed during the event.

Jamboard Example From Group 2

Q3: Are there issues which haven’t been mentioned which should also be explored?

Although our speakers were able to cover great breadth during the event, there were certainly issues, stories, and voices that needed to be recognised in our ongoing work. Our attendees built upon the concept of the need to provide multi-sensory / blended approaches within digital arts and culture activities. They questioned how we could use technology to provide the accessibility benefits of digital communication tools, while also facilitating some of the sensory experiences that can be achieved through in-person work.

Virtual reality was mooted as one opportunity for such endeavours, that may be able to provide a more immersive and engaging experience for participants. Meanwhile, others felt that diversity in the fidelity of technologies involved, a mixture of low and high-tech, was more appropriate – by allowing people with different attitudes and abilities to be involved. Nevertheless, others remained skeptical, asking whether technology could ever present a worthy alternative to in-person arts and cultural activities.

The concept of self-efficacy (an individual’s belief in his or her capacity to execute behaviors necessary to produce specific performance attainments) was another theme that the attendees wanted to further unpick. Although, there was agreement with regards to the potential of participatory processes to grant older adults opportunities to shape their involvement in digital arts and culture, some raised the point that without perceived competence in one’s own abilities, the people who might most benefit from support in these areas may be apprehensive about getting involving in these activities. Hence, some attendees mooted the stepwise approach of involving older adults in a range of interesting arts and cultural activities and placing an emphasis on building trusting relationships (with researchers and each other) and developing their confidence within these settings. Within these safe environments could be the best place to approach new topics – such as digital technologies.

Another salient point raised pertaining to self-efficacy considered older people beyond the end of the Connecting Through Culture as We Age project. Several of the attendees questioned how projects such as this one planned to ensure a project legacy that goes beyond project outputs and changes the course of people’s lives. Would the older people (and organisations) we work with during the course of the project retreat when the time comes for the researchers to step back from support activities? How could they continue to build upon any newly developed skills – digital technology is forever and rapidly evolving? In the case of Connecting Through Culture as We Age, how can we ensure that this project scales to impact more than just the lucky few co-researchers?

Following on from this, it was clear that maintaining and expanding upon any positive outcomes of the project would not be feasible without the enduring support of older people’s organisations and government. Presently most of the key work in digital arts and cultural participation is carried out by the charity sector, and we owe it to our partners to advocate for their further support. By leveraging our partnerships, we need to connect our work to the services of these organisations and attempt to influence policy making to support their work.

Q4: From the provocations, which do you think are the most important issues we need to explore further, and why? 

Some of the issues raised throughout this post remained worthy of further exploration, including empowering and supporting older adults, discovering new ways to blend digital and in-person participation, and the importance of establishing influential partnerships that can shape policy.

Yet, one of the most eagerly broached issues concerned the development of relationships between researchers and the communities, especially marginalised groups, that they wish to research. This feeds into one of the central tenets of the Connecting Through Culture as We Age project, co-production. The attendees were proponents of the idea that it is equally about the value that researchers can bring to these communities, as it is the value that the communities can bring to research. As noted by Fozia, during her account of experiences working with the Somali community in Bristol, universities do not have the best track record in this regard. Moreover, historically, universities have absconded from the communities after achieving their objectives. With regards to future collaborations, this is a difficult foundation upon which to build trusting, longevous relationships.

Hence, it is key for this project to embrace mutual exchange, but how can this be achieved? There were a range of suggestions, including: pacing research activities slowly, giving the parties time to get to know and understand each other and their cultures prior to any official data collection activities; ensuring that research activities are engaging for participants, as well as capturing data for researchers; recognising that engagement may be something that has to be encouraged at an individual level, with person-centred approaches being key to facilitating fulling participation; making endeavours to flatten any perceived power imbalances between the researchers and participants; encouraging co-ownership of the research and any project outputs, to be shared with participants; and making sure individuals receive fair and proper compensation for their time.

Another important issue that remained ripe for further discuss considered perspectives and language surrounding arts and cultural participation for older people. It was noted that implicitly ageist language was itself exclusionary and presumptuous of differences in the literacies of older people and other groups. Words like “age-friendly” and project / product missions aimed at countering “decline” or “deficits” is not only patronising, but implies that these groups are in someway less capable, as well as placing limitations on technology that is suitable for their use. Too often there are low expectations and a lack of ambition for older people’s use of technology, with many sidelined a simplistic digital consumers rather than those with the potential to create and produce. Instead, older people should be thought of as just that – people – of varying ages, classes, experiences, and backgrounds, and with the right to participate in digital arts and cultural experiences.

Next Steps: Applying these Conversations to Connecting Through Culture as We Age

In the third post of this series, senior research associate, Dr Tim Senior, describes his process of thematic analysis of the contributions from this event as well as other relevant interviews, workshops, and conversations that we’ve undertaken to date. Tim brings these themes together to present a ‘value canvas’ – a means of charting the mission, objectives, strategy, activities, and desired outputs for the Connecting Through Culture as We Age project.

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