I’ve been speaking to many writers about their projects with older people. What they do, how they do it, and why it matters.
‘Where the Heart is‘ was a set of artist residencies developed by David Clegg with Age Concern Central Lancashire. Six artists received open commissions to produce new work about the experience of working with those with dementia.
It’s led to so many amazing new pieces of work. Poet Sarah Hesketh published a superb collection The Hard Word Box last year. Novelist Sarah Butler produced Who Asked You? A fine collection of stories, interviews and personal essays. Jennifer Essex’s dance films and her work depicting co-dependence are startling and evocative.
Not arts therapy, or facilitated writing classes. Nor the chance to create work to display for visitors. The aim was for each artist to respond creatively.
They read, they wrote, they recorded conversations. They thought about, as Hesketh says, “how radical life writing can be.”
The project offered new perspectives from young artists on ageing, caring and living with dementia. This is a great model to consider. Serious, but open-ended enough to allow artists the freedom to create unexpected pieces.
‘Where the Heart is’ helps me think about what I mean about making literary work with older people. Community artists in Australia termed my work and this project ‘interpretative.’ I do understand this criticism. It raises ethical questions when an artist offers a perspective on older people’s experiences, rather than allowing them speak for themselves.
Then again, my activities, and that of both Sarahs included interviews and verbatim pieces in their work. Also, ‘Where the Heart is’ intended to show the reality of dementia care settings. It’s a secluded world that we don’t usually get to see.
How do you create art, let alone co-create art in dementia settings? How do you collaborate in a way that’s based on the needs and aspirations of those you are working with? Is using the words from a conversation with someone part of that process? Some artists say so, others disagree. Can listening and recording with someone else be co-creating? Maybe.
There’s room for activities which are collaborative and/or interpretative. As I continue with my research, I’m just keen to see a range of literary projects with those in later life. Testing ideas, exploring the models, thinking about what writers of all ages need to create it. I’m trying to hone in on the work I want to produce, and that I want to see made.