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Report: Wanted: Policy for the Arts in Older Age


From dance to cinema, painting to theatre, Bealtaine-time celebrates creativity in older age.

The Bealtaine festival takes place across Ireland in May each year (Bealtaine is Gaelic for the month of May).

According to Aging & Opportunity, the sponsoring organization, the 2010 arts festival attracted more than 100,000 participants, who attended 2500 events organized by more than 500 partners.

The events are organized by older adults, arts officers, librarians, artists and health-care workers. The festival also harnesses contributors from small community groups, retirement associations, residential care settings and public libraries.

Some programs, like writing and visual arts, are long-term, taking place throughout the year and from year to year. Others are one-off activities, such as a drama workshop, offered during the festival.

Bealtaine gets thumbs up

In a recent report, the festival garnered rave reviews from participants across the country.

The evaluative study was carried out by Eamon O’Shea and Áine Ní Léime of the National University of Ireland in Galway. The research appeared online in the journal Ageing & Society (July 22, 2011).

Older adults said the festival:

  • nurtures personal development;
  • enhances quality of life;
  • fosters social interaction; and
  • builds community.

Bealtaine nurtures personal development

Participants talked about learning new skills and even discovering hidden talents.

"I have to say I have found my voice since joining this group," a member of the writer’s group noted.

One long-time closet writer found the courage to admit in public that he had written before: "You would be kind of ashamed to say you were writing. I have heard this from other people who say the same."

Another respondent remarked, "Becoming part of a craft can help you develop your ideas."

Significantly, older adults said the opportunity to showcase their talents in a public forum boosted their confidence and had a positive effect on their self-esteem.

Bealtaine enhances quality of life

Eighty-six per cent of participants said the festival had improved their quality of life.

One member of an intergenerational project stressed the importance of having something to look forward to:

It gave me a new lease of life. I’m a widow and I live alone and it was marvellous to have something to get out for – to get involved in and then to forget your pains and aches and get completely immersed in the whole thing.

Along the same line, another participant said his art reduced anxieties about his health:

I probably think about the art more than I think about my health. If you keep worrying about yourself, you’re going to get something anyway so that in itself is a good thing.

Finally, a visual artist described the psychological boost she derived from completing a painting:

You’re getting out of the house and you’ve something always to look forward to and then in the evenings I can paint away for a few hours and it makes life a lot easier to live if you have interests. I think what kills people is lack of interest . . . I’m happy in myself because being creative gives you so much satisfaction. . . . It gives you a sense of well-being if you do a good painting or if you do a good piece of sculpture with clay.

Bealtaine fosters social interaction

A huge number – 95 per cent of participants – credited Bealtaine with broadening their social networks.

"My life would be very lonely without Bealtaine," a member of the writer’s group explained. "I have Bealtaine friends – we meet every Friday – this group wouldn’t exist without Bealtaine."

Other participants reported meeting friends, locally and across the county, who shared similar interests, whether singing or organizing.

Bealtaine also forged bonds with groups isolated in the past such as people in long-term care.

"I suppose it has broken down the walls of the hospital," one hospital worker and Bealtaine organizer explained. "It has opened it up and it has involved everybody, especially the community."

Bealtaine builds community

A striking 87 per cent of participants reported greater community involvement, thanks to Bealtaine. Some said they had joined community groups and even engaged in fund-raising activities for these organizations. Others talked about getting to know younger people in their area for the first time.

On the downside, the study found only 20 per cent of older people in Ireland get to experience Bealtaine. Participation rates among men generally and very old women are particularly low across a range of arts activities. On the upside, participation rates have increased annually since the festival’s inception in 1996.

Aging and the arts

According to the study, Bealtaine fosters a sense of personal identity, competence and connectivity among participants at the national and local levels.

Specifically, it promotes the involvement of older adults in the arts as:

  • audience members;
  • creators;
  • participants;
  • organizers; and
  • decision makers.

As well, the festival contributes to the visibility of older people, highlighting their talents and showcasing their contribution to community life.

New policy

The authors stress that additional investment in participatory arts programs for older adults is likely to yield public health benefits in the future.

They urged policy makers to adopt a new health-enhancing framework for older people that includes a national policy for the arts in older age.