“Living standards will be affected. . .”
“Markets worry about fiscal sustainability. . .”
“How will our economies and societies respond?”
Is this the introduction to the latest disaster film? The Greek debt crisis? A global pandemic?
No. It’s a description of the impact of population aging in Europe, The continent is waking up to their demography of being among the highest regions in the world with an older population. Old people are a problem that must be dealt with. No wonder the major service organization in London used to be called “Age Concern”.
In the United States we feared the “Silver Tsunami” twenty and thirty years ago. We worried that old people would rob future generations and bring the government, social and healthcare services to a grinding halt.
That disaster script hasn’t played itself out. Instead, we’ve found new ways to frame the impact of the “Age Wave”. Baby boomers are redefining what it means to retire, refire and continue to give back. The oldest old are redefining how to continue to live productive, healthy lives at 80, 90 and 100. “Lifelong learning” is now a more accepted concept.
And an important part of that is the role the arts play in the aging process. Arts programs are spreading like wildfire offering older adults opportunities to be creative, learn new skills, stay healthy, make friends and give back to other generations. Stagebridge is the oldest of over 800 “senior theatres” in the U.S. Dance programs are demonstrating their efficacy in staving off Alzheimer's and helping people with Parkinson's. And the National Center for Creative Aging is now a major policy, research and program hub for thousands of programs across the country.
Yet, in an “old Europe” many older adults are retiring to lives of sitting in cafes, “telly” watching and limited activity. Perhaps there is less pressure than there is in the U.S. for older adults to be “useful” and “productive.” In rural areas, there is often no retirement. Pensions are barely enough to get by on.
Despite their long, rich cultural heritage, Europe has been incredibly slow to recognize the significant role that the arts can have throughout a lifetime, particularly in the last third of life. More recently, there has finally been an awakening to the potential of this work with growing numbers of programs, especially in dance and music becoming available to elders. And these have begun to spread throughout the developed countries of Europe.
That is why the European Theatre Convention (ETC) convened a “Theatre and Ageing” Conference April 16-19 in Timisoara, Romania; and the European Union convened “Long, Live Arts” in The Hague, May 20-22. The ETC is an organization of forty theatre companies across Europe who decided it was time to address this pressing problem and commissioned eight theatre companies to produce four joint productions around some topic of aging. I was the only non European invited to present a workshop on how to involve older adults in the performing arts and inform participants about the scope of activity that is happening across the United States. The theatre productions were limited in their scope: only one actually featured older actors and really addressed issues of aging. My workshop was well attended and there was a lot of interest in the concept of theatres of, by and for older adults, like Stagebridge, which are clearly an anomaly to the European theatre community who rarely offer classes for older adults. In the workshop, I spent most of my time doing exercises that helped participants get in touch with their own feelings about aging --- because this is where we need to start. The response was quite positive and the press release after the conference began with my mantra: “It’s not about them. It’s about us.”
The “Long, Live Arts” conference in Holland was much broader in scope, bringing together 400 participants from 14 countries with 50 workshops and presentations celebrating older people and culture. Even former Queen Beatrix of Holland, now 77, attended. Presentations ranged from dance with older Somali men in London’s East End; to the 35 year old Theatre of Experience featuring older actors in Berlin; to a young artist who gives cameras to older adults in Amsterdam to document their lives; and an intergenerational musical theatre troupe that tours retirement homes with a show about being older and LGBT. With my colleague and Artful Aging Associates partner, Susan Perlstein, (who gave the keynote address), we presented two well attended workshops. Once again, we were the only non Europeans invited and our workshops gave participants an expanded world view of what is possible with arts and older adults and received a lot of positive feedback.
There are certainly barriers towards delivering arts programming to older adults. Many older adults around the world, and particularly in less developed countries of Europe are struggling just to survive. When I asked a Romanian actress if she knew of any arts and aging programs, she shook her head. “The old people here don’t have the money and are just concerned about their survival.” Public pensions are barely or not enough for most older adults to live on. They are forced to keep working or rely on their children for support.
And there aren’t the social institutions for seniors that we have in the United States or developed countries in Europe. In my limited time touring Romania and Albania, the only “senior centers” I came across were in the parks, where predominantly old men played dominoes, chess, and drank coffee (while the women presumably worked at home or in the fields). And when elders are ill, they are often cared for by their families. I stayed at an Airbnb apartment in Tirana, the capital of Albania, owned by a 25 year old architect, who was living with his 90 year old grandmother who had Parkinson's.
In a Europe where adults are retiring at 55, 60 or 65 and living to 100, it is clearly time to rethink the meaning and purpose of “old age.” It is time now to shift the European headlines about aging from “problem” to “potential” and “possibility”. Employing their rich cultural heritage as a vital part of the lives of its older citizens will go a long way towards solving this “problem” and “concern” and create a more liveable and meaning - full world for everyone.