‘I have a spark again’: Dance class helped older woman cope with pandemic

Over-50s engaged in hobbies less likely to be lonely, depressed or stressed, study finds

Margaret McKenna: ‘It woke me up and made me realize that I don’t have to ‘just’ exist. I have a spark again.’ Photograph: Patrick Bramley

Margaret McKenna: ‘It woke me up and made me realize that I don’t have to ‘just’ exist. I have a spark again.’ Photograph: Patrick Bramley

 

Older people who partake in creative activities are less likely to be lonely, depressed or stressed, according to a new study on the involvement in creative activities among the over-50s in Ireland.

Older people who were either actively engaged in doing creative activities or hobbies or passively involved by going to films, concerts or plays and/or reading or listening to music also self-reported higher levels of physical activity and lower levels of smoking.

The study, Creative Activity in the Ageing Population, which drew on data from The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA) - available at creativeireland.gov.ie - also found that involvement in creative activities increased for many older people during the Covid-19 pandemic. During the first lockdown, more than a quarter of TILDA participants said they were doing hobbies, crafts or puzzles more often, while almost 40 per cent said they were reading more. However, one in 10 people said they were doing less creative activities. Women were found to be almost twice as likely as men to spend time doing creative activities during the lockdowns.

Commenting on the study, Prof Rose Anne Kenny, founding principle investigator of TILDA and director of the Mercer’s Institute of Successful Ageing at St James’s Hospital, Dublin, says it’s “heartening” to see that 26 per cent of older people increased their creative activities during the pandemic but that it’s also important to note that loneliness and depression increased threefold during Covid-19. “If you are in that frame of mind, you don’t feel like engaging in creative activities because you don’t have the motivation,” she says.

Prof Kenny says that the most valuable creative activities for older people are those that also involve social engagement (ie, being in an art group or a film or theatre club). “There is a lot of evidence that shows social engagement reduces the ageing process and improves psychological and biological ageing while creative activities give people a sense of purpose and happiness and some will provide brain health stimulation,” explains Prof Kenny.

The Creative Activity in the Ageing Population study, which was commissioned and funded by Creative Ireland, found that people in lower educational or income groups and those with poorer health were less likely to participate in creative activities. Older adults living in rural areas participated less in creative activities during the pandemic than those in urban areas.

Prof Kenny says that valuing creativity during education is one way to engage more reluctant older people in creative activities. “I’d start in the schools by offering more active and passive creative activities and when you engage children at an early age, they’ll engage their parents and grandparents so you can have a ripple effect,” she says.

Margaret McKenna (71), a semi-retired pharmacist assistant, says that participating in a dance programme with dance teacher and choreographer Róisín Whelan provided a lifeline for her during the pandemic.

“Although I was in a cocoon with my daughter, her husband and their twins, I felt almost ‘locked-in’ to my home. I began to feel that my life was in a decline,” explains McKenna.

She cried at her first dance class in the Doorstep Dance project, which involved Whelan dancing outside McKenna’s open patio doors while she danced inside. “It was so beautiful. It was an emotional release. We were physically separated but we connected on an emotional and creative level,” explains McKenna.

Doorstep Dance teacher Róisín Whelan with Margaret McKenna Photographs: Patrick Bramley
Doorstep Dance teacher Róisín Whelan with Margaret McKenna Photographs: Patrick Bramley

She says the six-week programme brought her out of herself. “It woke me up and made me realise that I don’t have to ‘just’ exist. I have a spark again. I’m alive. I am now rehearsing for a flash mob performance of the 12 days of Christmas,” she says with a laugh.

Whelan says that McKenna moved from “seated dancing” in the first class to spending the whole hour on her feet by the end of the six-week programme. “It’s been amazing for me to do this work and get to know these older people, some of whom hadn’t seen someone for six months when I went to them first,” she explains.

The dance classes unlocked the confidence of older participants while helping their balance, co-ordination, musicality and rhythm, according to Whelan. “It was a huge benefit to them in their everyday lives and offered them a stepping stone to getting back out to do other things. One participant told me that she lost five years off her age every time I came.”

The Doorstep Dance programme (run through Visual Carlow) included individual classes for 45 older men and women, ranging in age from 65 to 89. “I sold it to the men as an exercise and movement class and I had one 89-year-old who told me he touched his toes for the first time in 45 years,” says Whelan.

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