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Oed y Byd: Bringing arts to isolated older people

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At Span Arts everybody is talking about a new and exciting approach to improve quality of life for some of the most elderly and vulnerable people in our society. We’ve just wrapped up an innovative pilot project bringing professional artists directly into contact with people who struggle to leave their own homes.  The project named Oed y Byd, a play on words in Welsh meaning ‘Old of the World’, targeted people over the age of 65 who found leaving the house a significant challenge; including people with long-term health problems, mobility issues and mental-health difficulties.  The impacts of this experimental project, funded by PAVS and Arts Council Wales, have been profound for all involved as you will see.

The one-to-one sessions were extremely successful; by working intensively over successive weeks, trust blossomed and participants reported a raft of positive benefits.  Most stated that it had a significant or even life-changing effect, one participant said ‘thank you….for the time you have spent in changing my life around – the time ahead of me is far less daunting than it was two months ago’

Working with dance practitioners Eeva Maria Mutka and Simon Whitehead and Welsh folk musicians Ceri Rhys Mathews and Julie Murphy, people were inspired to do things that they didn’t think previously possible; One woman who was initially put-off working with the dancers because she is a wheel-chair user said “I did not imagine I would be able to do as much as I did”, later on she went on to say “I really pushed myself which is something I haven’t done since I started using the wheelchair.  It was such great fun!”

As well as the unique creative sessions in people’s homes, we ran small group workshops in sheltered accommodation and local community locations where an atmosphere was generated enabling an outpouring of memories and stories. One male participant commented on this saying, ‘in my life I have found it difficult to share with people and this time has helped me to open up and share’. Another man in his nineties told the group a story from his honeymoon which still clearly had an impact on his life 70 years on. A woman who attended sessions with her mother commented “It’s bringing up a whole lot of memories from the past, and helping Mum and I to unlock some of it.”

It wasn’t all plain-sailing however – initially we found it a challenge reaching the house-bound individuals the project was aimed at; There was a lot of interest but many enquiries led to dead-ends; there was an understandable caution from participants around allowing strangers into their homes and also a dose of scepticism about what such a project could possibly offer them!  We dealt with these issues in a number of ways; firstly we established key partnerships with organisations such as the Stroke Association, PAVS Community Connectors and Pembrokeshire Housing, enabling us to connect with vulnerable individuals through a trusted third party; secondly, we had robust safeguarding procedures and provided in-depth training for our volunteers to help ensure participant safety and alleviate any concerns; and thirdly we used a person-centred approach where participants understood from the start that they would be able to direct the sessions, work at their own pace and focus on their own interests and needs. Eventually 20 individuals from across Pembrokeshire were enrolled, receiving a series of 4 one-to-one sessions each.

Feedback from participants highlights how profoundly they have been affected by their participation in the Oed y Byd project.  One participant said about a dance workshop, ‘it was lovely holding someone’s hand – I have not done that for 30 years’.  Another said “it made me feel young again…I think the old people need the young people…you’ve no idea how much seeing those girls brightens up my mood” Dance allowed people to connect with themselves and others, lowering their inhibitions and helping them relax. One woman said “I feel like I am feeling my body for the first time”.

The project culminated in a very special Twmpath (or community dance); a joyful and accessible event providing an uplifting opportunity for family members and the wider community to come together and celebrate with the participants. It created a wonderful, supportive occasion for house-bound individuals to feel part of their wider community.

We now have plans to continue working with the Oed y Byd participants in a series of dance and movement classes over summer 2017 ensuring that relationships established during the pilot project can continue.  This way of working offers genuine opportunities for participants to build self-confidence, improve their health and wellbeing and increase social contact with people outside of their own homes. We intend to integrate this approach into our practice and we are looking for funding to roll out projects like this on a larger scale in the future.

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Rowan Matthiessen

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