A human right to creativity: older age and wellbeing.

In the last parliament and in the returning SNP Government’s manifesto there was a commitment to create a new Human Rights Act for Scotland. Indeed, the Scottish Greens, Labour, Liberal Democrats and the SNP all made manifesto commitments to enshrine rights treaties in Scots Law. Whilst there will doubtless continue to be debate the mood music is clear. Unlike the rest of the UK’s rush away from human right obligations within statute and practice, Scotland seems to be setting its path quite clearly.

I want to reflect in this blog – based on a talk on older people’s arts and creativity at a Voluntary Health Scotland/ACHWS event this past week – on why this is important.

One of the main acts we are likely to see in any new legislation is the incorporation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) into Scots law. This would do many things but amongst them would be the enshrining in national law of an extensive range of ‘cultural laws’ and secondly embedding the ‘right to health’ and all that entails.

ICESCR and indeed the UN Declaration of Human Rights recognise that ‘the full promotion of and respect for cultural rights is essential for the maintenance of human dignity’ and that ‘everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community’.

This is of huge significance I believe for older people.

The right to health as defined by the World Health Organisation is a recognition that we become and remain healthy not just as a result of the absence of disease but in part through the ability to enjoy, find fulfilment and to flourish in our identity and self. Psychological and physiological health and wellbeing are entwined.

This is where creativity, culture and health are going to root themselves. These offer us powerful levers to influence, shape and direct our health but also our cultural needs as a society embedding a holistic view of our health and wellbeing.

I think there are certain things in what with some justification I would term a human right of creativity that we need to address to maximise this potential.

The first is the need to address discrimination.

The pandemic and our collective political and societal response to it, has exposed the systemic and systematic ageism which lies at the root of our society. Naming and shaming it for what it is – the pervasive wallpaper which provides the backdrop of so much of our exchange and civic society – is self-evidentially important.

When it comes to the world of culture, we see this writ large, a mixture of blatant discrimination and lazy presumption. There is in all the chat and conversation about ‘building back better’ and restoring our cultural life – a pervading presumption that we are talking about particular forms of culture and the arts, and that those most impacted have been the ‘young’; all of which ignores the reality both fiscally and creatively that so much of the cultural arts and community are led by, directed by and paid for by those who might be defined as ‘older.’

More significantly there still pervades the presumption that creativity has a sell by, or use-by date attached. I find the ongoing debate of some psychologists and sociologists about when creativity peaks and when it declines a somewhat arid and turgid conversation – if you believe some of it and you are tempted to write your best lyrical poetry, or paint that breath-taking landscape or compose a hit after the age of 40 – forget it. Didn’t you know great poetry and art are a young person’s preserve?

The truth that I see is that creativity occurs and happens at all ages, sometimes with fading intensity, sometimes with a renewed vigour as time ticks on.

There is a lazy stereotype which needs challenging – for what I witness in creatives later in life is not just a re-treading or re-moulding of past action or product, but frequently a freshness, vitality and originality – a renaissance of creativity which utilises experience, insight, effectiveness and maturity.

To maximise the benefits of a human right of creativity we need to challenge the presumptions. Even working in a palliative and end of life context I have seen music formed, words created, art designed which has been both poignant, original and truth-telling.

The second thing we need to do is to maximise resource.

The fundamental right to exercise creativity, to be inspired, moved, motivated and impassioned, needs to be nurtured and resourced. If we are serious about recognising and validating all the research which links loneliness with mental health distress, which shows that someone connected through creativity benefits their health and well-being to a significant extent – then we must start recognising that financially investing in the creative sector and its role in ageing is of vital preventative importance. It cannot be an after-thought or added extra; it has to be a mainstream focus.

I know that as we recover from the pandemic our first and foremost priority must be to get people connected, families re-united and ‘normality’ returned but we must also plan for a better future. So, it is I long to see every care home have an artist in resident, every homecare organisation employing an itinerant creative, ever hospital ward having access to an in-house creative, because the evidence is clear – connect through creativity and you reduce isolation, loneliness, depression and so much more.  I have witnessed first-hand this to be the case with people with late-stage dementia who when they have lost the power to verbally communicate can still create and express their emotions and thoughts through those creations. You enable and enhance the ability of a person to see and feel themselves to be of worth, to be able to contribute and sense value.

Put bluntly spend money to save money – we have too many people who end up utilising scarce NHS resources when the adequate flourishing of creativity could have prevented so much decline and deterioration, despair and distress.

The creative arts can nourish real change and the right to creativity can foster the realisation of other human rights. In the past we have perhaps focussed too much in older person’s care and support services in seeing the creative arts as solely forms of entertainment and performance, but the use of art and creativity to enable voice, advocacy and articulation is immeasurable.

The creative arts can turn the ‘rage against the dying of the light’ into the sparks of new beginnings, new directions and new insights.

So how do we create the spaces and places where poetry can speak a truth more passionate, raw and real, than the clarion calls of policy put into practice or political proclamation? How do we enable people to discover until the moments of ending that they have a spark of creativity intrinsic to their humanity – perhaps dormant, perhaps supressed or hidden?

Art is about the flourishing of humanity and the fulfilment of personhood – it is therefore a fundamental human right – but all human rights cannot just sit on shelves gathering dust in legal tomes – they have to come alive in our communities.

I have been privileged to walk behind in the shadows and occasionally in the footprints of artists and creatives all my life. Those who have etched their impression into me at greatest depth have all of them been those late in the years of their creativity – and perhaps most especially my storyteller grandmother – a spinner of yarn and truth, insight and fable by a Hebridean fireside. She once said to me that she felt the need to tell stories more often as she got older rather than less. With that insight came the words: the older I get the more I know that silence is as important in a story as sound; the older I am the more prepared I am to listen to that silence.

I hope we can all listen to the silent creativity which comes with the maturity of age, and with the words that surround our attention be prepared to celebrate and advance the human right of creativity which belongs to all.

Donald Macaskill

Last Updated on 10th June 2021 by Shanice