Culture and Wellbeing

In February, the British Museum hosted an Age Friendly Museums Network event.   An astonishing 250 people showed up! The Network was launched four years ago, but it really has grown and blossomed. The basic idea is to reach out to older people’s organisations, either to take objects out to show them, or to lay on something special in the museum. Some older people may remember with little affection their last visit to a museum five or six decades ago, and won’t understand how much this milieu has changed. But others have jumped at this chance to get some V.I.P. treatment.

Participation in cultural activity such as this emerged as the surprising top indicator of wellbeing (out of forty) which our research department has recently published.   Drawing on five or six years of survey findings by Understanding Society, and capturing 15,000 opinions and perceptions from people over 60, it was unsurprising to see good health and adequate money in the top flight, but cultural participation was a handsome front runner, and other indicators around involvement and engagement with society were also highly rated. Altogether, social participation in a variety of ways was a strong element in wellbeing, with only 15% of people in the most unfortunate fifth of our analysis engaging regularly in social activities, compared with over 60% in the top fifth.

Cultural participation is, of course a very elastic term, which might be singing, dancing, knitting, or learning a foreign language. Joining a book group has long been identified as a ‘good thing’ to do in later life, but if you join a group with a preference for gloomy Russian literature as against (say) detective novels, it might not do much for your wellbeing. The key is to find the right activity which suits you – whether it is building on your personal interests, or opening up a completely new challenge.

Finding that appropriate activity is identified by the Arts Council as a real barrier. Its survey work, which corroborates our analysis, reveals that in the absence of one, well sign-posted local directory, it is actually rather difficult to get a picture of what cultural openings and opportunities are available in the locality. Even Google, often the first port of call for information, will probably not be able to find the jewellery-making group, the film club arranging group showings of films from a television library, or the baking and pastry-making circle. With cultural participation so clearly being a ‘good thing’, we need to think harder about how we capture, present and disseminate information about local initiatives. Local is important but not essential – there is no reason why a poetry-reading group could not meet on skype.

It’s also an interesting challenge to GPs. How many might take the view that the best treatment for an ailing patient might be to prescribe a course of theatre visits or a season ticket for the supporter of a football club? There is a serious point here.   NHS England has a National Clinical Champion for Social Prescribing, and the Chief Executive of Public Health England will be addressing a Kings Fund Conference on the subject in the spring. It could make visiting the doctor a much more positive experience.

Age UK aims to measure how older people in the UK are doing. Find out more by reading our Wellbeing Index report

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