Poetry, drama and garden gnomes: how one arts body is helping the isolated elderly this Xmas

A ‘Meet Me’ workshop at the Albany. Pic: Roswitha Chesher for Entelechy Arts and the Albany

More than a hundred vulnerable and isolating elderly people in Lewisham are to receive a special Christmas present this December. Made of poetry booklets, home-made jams with CDs of radio shows and singing doorstep performances as an added surprise.

The packages are being delivered by Entelechy Arts, a locally based arts company. It follows an initiative earlier in the year to deliver small garden gnomes for home painting to more than 200 isolating elderly people in the borough.

Christine Lee, General Manager at Entelechy Arts told Eastlondonlines: “We wanted to reach out to the people who we know have been the most isolated this month, and give them a little bit of something exciting on their doorstep now and something to look forward in the year too.”

‘Meet Me’ on the radio. Pic: Donkey Studio for Entelechy Arts and the Albany

Entelechy Arts was founded in 1989 at the instigation of the then Lewisham Health Authority as a social prescribing initiative which aims to engage local marginalised people in creative arts activities such as dance, theatre, textiles, sculpture, or even circus events. It is now run by a board of trustees, paid staff and volunteers. They are half funded by the Arts Council and Lewisham council and also supported by charitable foundations and trusts.

The sessions led by established or emerging artists, used to happen at their Deptford venue or at the Albany café. But to face the lockdown and keep contact through the pandemic, Entelechy, started over-the-phone small group arts sessions.

David Slater, founder of Entelechy Arts told ELL: “We have been looking at old-fashioned technology like the phone, looking at conference calling platforms, looking at how people can use those familiar technologies to dial into a group of friends or with people sharing the same activities.”

For him, phoning has been the best way to keep people in contact. He even noticed that some shy people found themselves more confident over the phone. For instance, during the choir group over-the-phone session, he surprisingly heard “powerful voices appearing”.

They also commissioned artists to work on imaginative and opportune projects as the distribution of 250 unpainted garden gnomes. Sometimes arriving in care homes or shelter housing, the gnomes came with little paint boxes and post cards for people to share stories, or memories.

For people having their birthday during the lockdown, they created impromptu performances and concerts on their streets or back gardens and the volunteers brought birthday cake for those who would have otherwise spent their birthdays alone.

They created a radio show on Resonance FM, where the two elderly presenters and other participants phoned in every week to record their content. Aiming to reach even more people than their existing network, the show covered subjects such as dancing, keeping fit, or remembering stories.

Christine Lee underlined the importance of keeping older people mentally healthy during the pandemic. She told ELL: “There was somebody who had to go to the hospital for a period of time and the thing that really got her going, what she was looking forward to when she got out, was being able to speak, reconnect with us and take part in the activities again.”

“21st Century Tea Dance”. Pic: Donkey Studio for Entelechy Arts

COVID-19 restrictions massively increase people’s isolation and affected people’s health thus maintaining good human relation became the organisation’s main focus.

Lee told ELL: “I think culture is essential. It enables us to find new ways to understand ourselves and other people. A lot of the work we do is enabling people to have a voice, especially people who in the past have felt invisible.”

What is social prescribing? It means connecting patients to community services, by taking a holistic approach to people’s health and wellbeing. Referred by link workers who take the time for in-depth discussion, patients are directed towards the most appropriate local agency, which could be a multidisciplinary team, a job centre, or social care services. In 2018, Matt Hancock said in a speech introducing the practice: “The arts and social activities can help meet major challenges facing health and social care – ageing, loneliness, mental health, and other long-term conditions.” Thus, in the last couple of years, a creative and cultural approach of the scheme has been largely encouraged and the NHS plans to have “at least 900,000 people referred to social prescribing by 2023/24”.

For Slater, it is not only by meeting others, but rather by doing activities together, that people end up sharing memories. “They become interconnected and feel like a part of something,” he said.

The link between arts, health and well-being was examined at a Mayor of London’s roundtable in October which brought together the Entelechy Arts, the Camden-based organisation Free Space project and others to discussed boosting creative and cultural social prescribing.

Slater said the roundtable recognised the impact art organisations can have by working with older isolated people. “Then looking for ways of how to scale up this work because the need is far greater than existing initiatives are able to meet,” said Slater.

Drawing for the Mayor of London. Pic: Merlin Evans @drawntomedicine

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