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What is Active Ageing and how can Museums help?

People are now living longer than ever before. The average life expectancy around the globe is rising year on year. Although it is levelling off or even dropping by a fraction in some developed countries, they are still facing an ageing population. Men in the US can expect to live to an average age of 76.1. For women, the age rises to 81.

There are many challenges associated with an ageing population. One of these is the increased pressure on medical services. A key way for people to ensure better health as they head into retirement age is by staying active. Active ageing means being active and engaged before and during retirement. This can include physical activity such as fitness classes. But it also encompasses mental exercises and lifelong learning. Active ageing can be key to staying healthy, both physically and mentally.

Museums hold a whole host of information. This means that they are ideal destinations for mental stimulation. But modern museums can provide more than a simple educational day out. Many institutions are now running programmes designed to help older people stay active. These projects include ways for people to connect with others, to stay engaged, to share knowledge and even to keep fit. Older adults are not all the same and need a diverse programme of activities.

Museum volunteers stay active and share skills

Volunteers are key to the museum sector. The University of Oxford produced a report with the British Museum and the Age Friendly Museum’s Network. The UK’s Ageing Population: Challenges and Opportunities for Museums and Galleries report looks at a survey of 296 UK museums. The survey found that a large number of museum volunteers are over the age of 65. When volunteers have roles of value, with proper training and support, they provide an invaluable service to museums. But the volunteers themselves also gain a great deal from the experience. Volunteering in a museum is a way to meet new people, learn and use new skills, and to feel part of a community. For many, a volunteer role can be the motivation that they need to get out of the house and to keep active.

Older volunteers often have a lifetime of skills and knowledge. One museum project made use of this in an intergenerational project. The Manchester Jewish Museum ran the Building Bridges project from 2012-13. The idea was to pair older volunteers with young unemployed people. Together, the group developed a new museum tour that could all the volunteers could deliver. The young volunteers ‘shadowed’ their older colleagues. During the project, they were able to learn from the experiences of the older people. They built new relationships and talked about what they had in common. Participants of all ages said that the programme had improved their skills and their self-confidence.

Museums helping older people to enjoy the outdoors

London’s Geffrye Museum of the Home runs a monthly club for vulnerable or isolated older adults. The club revolves around the museum gardens. It allows people to reconnect with the natural world.

Participants in the “Evergreen Gardeners” project meet once a month. Along with their carers, they meet once a month to take part in a range of activities. These are designed to promote lifelong learning and a sense of wellbeing. The activities are all accessible. This means that everyone can enjoy them, including people with disabilities. Sessions include activities such as planting and growing. Participants can also enjoy things like baking, printing and crafts, all with a garden theme.

An extra outcome of this project is a range of free, downloadable activity sheets for anyone to access. These are available on the museum’s website. They include worksheets on a wide range of topics. These include making pine-cone feeders and homemade seed balls. They also feature recipes for simple bakes and tips on growing your own veg. Worksheets include advice for people and/or carers, and information on equipment.

Staying physically active in the museum

The NHS stresses the importance of staying active in later life. Adults aged over 65 are the most sedentary age group. They spend on average 10 hours more each day sitting or lying down. The risks of this inactive lifestyle include falls, obesity and heart disease. “As people get older and their bodies decline in function, physical activity helps to slow that decline,” says Dr Nick Cavill, a health promotion consultant. “It’s important they remain active or even increase their activity as they get older.”

It’s not only about exercise. Staying active can include leisure activities such as walking, swimming, cycling or gardening. Group classes such as yoga or other gentle exercises are a great way to stay both active and social.

V&A offers Tai Chi

V&A offers Tai Chi

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London includes Tai Chi classes in its programme of events. Tai Chi is an excellent example of the kind of activity that is beneficial to older people wanting to stay active. These introductory sessions take place inside some of the museum’s most calming spaces, such as the tapestry rooms or Raphael court. Participants go through a series of poses with a qualified instructor. These routines can increase relaxation and mindfulness. Visitors can also enjoy a coffee morning and a private tour before the museum opens to the public.

Enjoying the prime of life

In 2014, the Museum of Modern Art in New York began work on a project called Prime Time. This was a research and development project. It looked at how museums can support active ageing and engage with older adults in a fulfilling way.

Prime Time at MoMA

Francesca Rosenberg is the Director of Community, Access and School Programs at MoMA. She describes how it was important for the museum to understand this audience in order to design activities which suited their needs. During the early stages of the project, the museum assembled a diverse group of 11 New Yorkers aged from 61 to 94. It called this group the Prime Time Collective. “Through written evaluations, focus groups, video interviews, our research with the Collective illuminated the kinds of experiences these individuals seek in museums.” Said Rosenberg. “They’re looking for experiences which are engaging, inclusive, social, and regularly scheduled.”

Prime Time approaches programming in a new way, taking into account the results of the research. Firstly, the museum is working to ensure that all departments are welcoming and accessible. Secondly, it partners with community organisations to offer customised programmes. These are aimed at people who are otherwise unlikely to visit. Customised programming reflects the fact that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Different groups of older people have diverse needs and interests. The museum also works to create a varied programme for independent older adults. These include film showings, tours, lectures and social groups.

Staying happy in later life

There are a few factors which may stop older people from interacting with museums. For example, they may be isolated or lack transport. They may not be aware of the number of opportunities that are available. One scheme, The Happy Older People project, aims to bring together a range of organisations that can help with this. Together they form a network to promote age-friendly arts participation.

National Museums Liverpool created the project. It includes a variety of groups. This includes cultural organisations, health care professionals, housing associations, artists and community groups. They aim to help older people access and enjoy culture and the arts. The HOP network says, “We aim to create new partnerships and connections between organisations in the Liverpool City Region, making a difference to older people who may be isolated and lonely, who simply want to try something new or go somewhere different. We hope that HOP will be a catalyst for a more age-friendly arts offer across the city.” Current projects include community arts and crafts groups, local history sessions and even walking clubs.

Sharing and discovering knowledge with older people

Many older people want to carry on learning new skills after they have stopped working. The University of the Third Age (U3A) is an international movement. It aims to educate and stimulate older or retired adults. The U3A now has chapters all over the world. These groups allow people to get together and share their skills or learn new ones together.

There are many examples where U3A groups have worked alongside museums. They can take part in local history sessions or use their skills to help with research projects. London’s Horniman Museum and Gardens worked with a group of U3A volunteers on a project in 2011. Together they researched the museum’s natural history curators, stretching back 150 years. They produced biographical files detailing the work and lives of previous curators. The participants also presented their findings to an audience.

The museum spoke positively of the project. “This shared learning project has enabled the development of the Horniman’s remarkable natural history collections to be better understood, and has ensured that the contributions of the people involved are properly documented. The project was also a valuable opportunity for the Horniman to involve the wider community in its work.”

Understanding the value of older adults to museums and wider society

Speaking about MoMA’s Prime Time at MuseumNext Dublin in 2016, Rosenberg warned against the tendency to tar all older people with the same brush. She says that our culture has some common myths about older adults. Firstly, that all older people are the same. Secondly that they are in poor health, and lastly that they have no money. But today’s ageing population is healthier and wealthier than ever before. They have a diverse range of interests gathered throughout a life full of different experiences. They have a desire to learn new things, stay active and continue to enjoy life to the full.

Older people have a considerable amount of consumer power. But they also have value in what they can give back to the community. These projects show that when older people are included, they share knowledge and experience that is relevant to all generations. By helping older adults to stay active, both physically and mentally, cultural organisations can ensure that they continue to be valuable members of society. Feeling welcomed by these institutions helps them to stay active. This, in turn, has a host of mental and physical benefits.

About the author – Charlotte Coates

Charlotte Coates is a Brighton based writer working extensively in the arts and cultural spaces. Charlotte has explored a wide range of museum related subjects since she started writing for MuseumNext in early 2019.

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