I lost another one of my project participants yesterday. This year alone, three of the older people I’ve been working with have passed away. It’s been a good year. In 2017 I had to say goodbye to six of my wonderful new friends. It’s never easy.
I absolutely love my job. For me, creating art with older people is right up there with my own writing practice. Most days, if I’m honest, I’d prefer to hang out with my older people than write. They’re not as demanding. They don’t make me feel like a failure when I’m having a less than productive day. I’m supposed to be inspiring them, but usually it works the other way round and I leave a session buzzing with the encouragement they’ve offered me, the ideas discussed and amazing pieces of work we’ve managed to create together.
I really enjoy working with older people. But there’s a downside to my job. The people I work with are old. Some are almost a hundred. Most are in their late seventies at least. I’m not naive. I know I have a limited amount of time with these people. But no matter how elderly they are, it always comes as a shock to realise I’ll never again see a wee face I’ve grown to love. I’ll never get to pick up the conversation where I’ve left off; or complete the project; or watch that person light up when they encounter the finished product for the first time. One week they were here drinking tea and writing stories, dancing, painting, telling me all about their childhood or their grandchildren starting school. The next week there’s an empty chair. The week after, another older person’s taken their place and I’m expected to offer them the same amount of welcome and enthusiasm I try to bring to every older person I work with. Sometimes it’s hard to work up the energy for it.
I’m not over-estimating what I do. What I do is easy compared to what families and carers do. I rock up once a week for ten weeks, or six months, or a year if I’m lucky, and I do fun things with older people. I get the best of them for a couple of hours. I listen to their stories. I write with them. I sing with them. Sometimes we even dance. I drink endless cups of tea and help them create little pieces of art which, hopefully, remind them that there are still things to be tried and enjoyed in this life, that each of them is still full of untapped potential. I try to make friends with them, even if we’re only going to have a couple of months together. I have two hours a week with my older people. It’s not very long. You can hardly scratch the surface of a person in two hours a week.
I don’t get the hard bits: the temper, the harsh words, the forgetting, the physicality of caring for a person who can no longer take care of themselves. I don’t have to watch a person I’ve known for years, slowly fade away. I get smiles and laughter and the first listen of the stories carers and family members have no doubt heard a thousand times. When I occasionally get tears, they’re the good kind of tears: the sort which spring from memories recollected or powerful words deeply felt. I don’t get to know my older people as their partners and children and carers know them. We only go back so far. Our friendship is tied up in whatever project or activity has brought us together. I could tell you which songs they like to sing, which colour of paint they’ll almost always reach for, their favourite film or place to visit, how they take their tea, but I probably couldn’t tell you their second name. When I lose them, my loss is nowhere near as large as the loss their family and friends are experiencing. But it hurts to lose them nonetheless.
Sometimes the losses makes me a little reluctant to throw myself into the next friendship with an elderly participant. It’s not something we often talk about, but many of the community arts practitioners I work with, will know exactly what I mean. If you work with older people, you need to prepare yourself to lose them. But you also need to ensure you don’t bring any kind of fear or hesitancy into your work. Understanding that your friendship with an older person might be reasonably fleeting, must not stop you from fully engaging with this person. If, as a community arts practitioner, you hold yourself at a distance from your participants they’re inevitably going to have a lesser experience of whatever you’re attempting to share. More worryingly however, you’re not going to learn as much as you might have learned from your participants. You’re less likely to leave the project shaped and changed by the people you’ve encountered and the incredible learnt wisdom, older people always seem to impart.
Which begs the question, how, as an older people’s arts facilitator do you keep going, how to do you remain open to new encounters with your participants, how do you keep smiling and loving what you do, when you know you’re going to continue to lose the people you’ve grown close to? For me, the answer to how is always why? Why do I work with older people? There are so many selfish reasons, many of which are listed above. Mostly I work with older people because, in my experience, they’re constantly inspiring, challenging and encouraging me, both as an artist and a human being.
However, if I set aside my own ulterior motives, the main reason I work with older people is because I want the final years of their lives to be filled with as much joy, contentment, creativity and passion as possible. I’ve had older people I love -family members and friends- who, through circumstances, lack of resources or illness, haven’t enjoyed the kind of end of life experience they deserved. This doesn’t seem fair to me. I know it’s hopelessly naive, but I’d like to ensure that everyone gets to end well. I’m prepared to do whatever I can to make this a reality for the people I work with. It’s the only way I can seem to make sense of the loss. So, when I think about my lovely six month friend who passed away yesterday I’m a little sad, but I’m much more grateful to have been a tiny part of her final chapter. My last memory of her is full of laughter and stories and confidence. Neither of us knew she’d only have a few days left, but there she was trying and succeeding, quite elegantly, at an art form she had no previous experience of. She was, in her last moments, contributing something meaningful to the world. Creating beauty. Enjoying life. Ending really well.