REVALUING LIVES: One of the theatre pieces created by Age Exchange, uniting young people with those who remember and have shared their stories of another time.
REVALUING LIVES: One of the theatre pieces created by Age Exchange, uniting young people with those who remember and have shared their stories of another time. AGE EXCHANGE

World's best talk wellbeing through the arts

IMAGINE if someone thought enough about your life, your words, to create a play around them and put them on stage.

Or what if a couple of comic entertainers could give a dementia patient back a feeling of empowerment and positively change relationships with their families and carers simply through playfulness?

Could music-making or creating art build resilience and improve mental health for those in nursing homes and retirement villages?

These are just some of the subjects being tackled by over 80 presenters from around Australia and the world at the 9th Annual International Arts and Health Conference in Sydney from October 30 to November 1.

Convenor Margret Meagher said the wide range of arts and health topics encompassed art, poetry, music and song, dance, theatre, craft and cuisine and dealt with aged care, dementia, veterans, prisoners, child and youth mental health and women's health.

With our ever-growing older population, and dementia affecting one in 10 people over the age of 65, a number of presentations and workshops focus on the evidence that involvement in creative activities can have a major impact on older people's quality of life.

David Savill has worked for 20 years at Age Exchange, the leading UK charity specialising in reminiscence theatre, which aims to change perceptions of "how we see older people in our society and how we value them and the lives they have lived".

By working with groups to draw out their memories of times that were important to them through sensory triggers, artefacts, archive material and photography, they create and stage a theatre piece, often unscripted, so that the older participant doesn't have to remember lines, but based on a structured improvisation.

"In performance the older people often just fly, finding new wit, asides, engaging with the audience directly, and sharing their own life experience in an extremely free and immediate way," he said.

And afterwards, "you can see the older performer glow when they see the audience enjoy and sometimes share in their performed memory".

But, of course, fading memory is one of the difficulties too often associated with ageing.

Brisbane's Michael Balfour addresses social isolation, depression and quality of life for dementia patients through his work with 'playfulness'.

In the vein of the Clown Doctors, who have been helping kids in hospitals for years, special applied theatre actors engage patients in fun and activity, putting them in the driving seat of what happens, giving them the control they rarely experience as dementia patients.

The results have been outstanding, with families and carers, often caught up in the practical tasks of health care, both reporting changes in the patients as well as in their own relations with them as they come to view them again as a whole person.

Meanwhile, England's Andrea Creech argues that singing and making music builds resilience in older age, is associated with lasting effects on brain plasticity, language and attention, provides "distraction from physical and emotional pain", is social, communicative and "strongly related to sustaining a sense of who we are".

Katrina Rank, from Ausdance Victoria, examines whether Australia is ready for the Senior demand for dance classes, with research confirming its importance for mind, body and spirit, while Sydney's Ros and Chris Poulos discuss the sense of purpose, personal growth and empowerment, as well as release that elderly participants report after being "prescribed" participation in art by health practitioners.

For more details on the conference, go to #artshealth17

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