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Increasing visibility
Animated, Summer 1999. Who is defined as 'older'? People over the age of 50? People who have retired from employment? People who are older than the speaker? Different people use different definitions. Fi Frances highlights the urgent need for training for those artists wishing to work well with older people...
We are often invisible, us older people, even to ourselves. Ageism is insidiously at work inside almost everyone's thinking. We make assumptions, use stereotypes. We believe our own myths.

Currently artists can work on arts projects in, say, a residential home, a hospital ward or a dance centre, without being asked if they have the relevant training to work with older people. In most work contexts which involve people, staff are expected to have training which includes a thorough examination of not just the work itself, but also of the people they will be working with. This applies to social, youth and probation work, teaching, nursery nursing and health promotion. Other people who work with people are trained for it. So why not artists?

My research (1) has looked at artists' training across all artform areas and I use the word 'artist' the Italian way - meaning a practitioner working in any artform. A writer is an artist, a weaver is an artist, a dancer, a ceramicist, a film maker... are all artists. Some use the terms 'dance artist' or 'photographic artist', presumably to indicate that making art is their central activity In this article, read dance for art and dancer or dance artist for artist.

But what is the nature of the work artists need training in? Several labels exist: participatory arts, community arts, arts in the community, outreach arts, arts education and community education. Meanings can vary, but underlying all is the practice of paying artists to develop practical arts work with people who have less experience in that artform than the facilitating artist. There are few courses and currently most artists 'train' themselves on the job - an unreliable process. Training should help you learn from other people's inspirations, mistakes and knowledge, not just your own.

So, what would your training be about if as a dance artist you want to work well with older people?

Older age, the ageing process, ageism
First, you will need to take a good hard look at older age. As a society we have hardly begun this investigation. Who is defined as 'older'? People over the age 50? People who have retired from employment? People who are older than the speaker? Different people use different definitions. This is so partly because older people are as different from each other as the rest of us. They may he older-older or younger older, artists or non artists, black, white or oriental. They may have families or no families, be gay or straight, be Jewish, Christian, Sikh or atheist, live in rural areas or big cities, be wealthy or extremely poor, be healthy or ill, much educated or less educated, active and independent, or frail and dependent. And so on. Artists work with older people will need to be able to identify what sort of older people they are working with.

Training would need to aim at age awareness, examine ageing from every angle: ageism, the gerontology and biology of ageing, physical and mental states associated with ageing, cultural and social differences and similarities, and loss, including bereavement. In dance, training in the anatomy of older age would be crucial. What a large and fascinating body of knowledge about older age this would be, although I doubt anyone has ever collected it all together.

Earlier this year I took part in a great discussion workshop about dance and ageism (2). There were eight of us. We decided that the dance world's particular problems with ageing are rooted in its dominant youth cult - its body fascism. We discussed how in its practice, dance can create spaces in which we could look at ageism. As an artistic process it could provide a safe space in which older people can take risks, explore new personal movement possibilities, explore ageism, including self ageism. We wanted to change the definition of dance, develop a new, non-ageist concept - including a different movement vocabulary, a different speed of working, using the strengths different cultural dance styles. We concluded that older people, including older professional dancers, could, by creating their own dance work provide good role models to challenge body fascism and the youth cult. Working intergenerationally would counteract ageism too.

This process could generate a positive dance iconography of age and ageing, we felt - dance images which see older age as normal rather than as 'a problem'. We thought we in the dance world should invest in photography and film to create these new public dance images - that we should counteract ageism both inside the arts sector and in other sectors such as health, housing and care. It was an exhilarating discussion. Training should also include workshops like this.

Work settings
Look at where artists are working with older people and we are talking all kinds of different institutions with all sorts of different people. What is 'the community' if not exactly that? But it needs unpacking. This work goes on in both arts and non-arts places. Arts settings include galleries, theatres and dance centres. Non-arts settings include village halls, hospitals and retirement schemes, and many more.

These places are also other people's work settings. Training would need to deal with how people in these different institutions work - with their employment and care practices, management structures, staff attitudes and philosophies, institutional routines, traditions and jargons. Time and again artists have told me it would have been handy to have known how a residential home worked before they were, in their words, "thrown in at the deep end". As a dancer you may understand the workings of a dance centre but be flummoxed by the workings of a hospital ward. Training could help you make use of opportunities a particular work setting offers, avoid its pitfalls, liaise well with the staff and their expectations. You would become a dance ambassador, trained to communicate the best of the dance world, to show what older people can do in dance in that setting - to smooth away anxieties about working with a dance artist because you have been trained to know how to enable this meeting of work cultures.

Artform skills
As an artist you will need your own artform training and your passion for your artform. You will also need to look at what your beloved artform area, in this case dance, might have to offer the older people you will work with. Training would need to look at the implications of using different aspects of your artform with different older people in different situations. It would look at the use of 'taster sessions' for people who cannot easily make art form choices because they have so little experience of the arts. It would look at dance forms from a full range of cultures. It would look at whether some dance forms might be particularly appropriate for some older people. It would look at how combinations of artforms - say, dance, music and sculpture - might he used together. Ultimately, like all good contemporary art it should be immensely flexible, suitable for people at all levels of skill and ability, and older people with all kinds of ideas.

Facilitating skills
You will need to learn the skills of enablement and empowerment - sometimes called 'people skills'. Artists doing this work are involved in an additional dimension besides the one of making art. They also have to know what can help older people to make their own art, ie. to participate. Facilitating artists need to develop facilitating skills.

Training would look at how to work with groups, how to work with individuals, how to motivate older people who may have lost enthusiasm and confidence, how to work with older people who have dementia or low mobility, how to engage older people's long experience and sometimes forgotten skills - in short, how to communicate your artform's vast possibilities to the particular older people you are working with. Crucially, it would consider what the ideas, subjects, issues, or themes of your sessions might usefully be, -ie. what your older participants might make art about and why.

Models of practice Lastly, you will need to hear some stories. If you want to avoid re-inventing the wheel every time you begin a new project, it is essential to hear and see and feel how other people do the job - to look at models of practice and case studies. Presentations of other people's arts-and-older-people projects - through videos, photographs, objects, quotations, talk and writing - are an invaluable training resource. They would include the successes and the problems of different projects. They would inspire you, give you ideas, contacts and knowledge.

These are the five areas of training content I would like to see developed: older age, work settings, facilitating skills, artform issues, and models of practice, in any order. Encompassed within this should also be training in employment practice, ie. the professional and business skills you will need whether you are a freelancer or are managed by an arts organisation - for instance, publicity, fund-raising, administration.

Just how we would do this training is another story. The place of well-facilitated work experience structures such as mentoring and shadowing, of one-off training events, of accredited courses, and more - all need discussing. Another article, I guess.

Fi Frances, Artist and Freelance Arts Consultant, Researcher and Evaluator specialising in the field of the arts and older people. Her book The Arts and Older People - a practical introduction, published by Age Concern England, is available from their Services Development Unit. Fi died of cancer on 13 November, 2001.

1. Frances, Fi.,Training Would Help - the training needs of artists who work with older people, Equal Arts, Gateshead, 1997. Contact +44(0)191 477 5775
2. Dance and Older People - A National Seminar, The Foundation for Community Dance, London, 1999

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001