‘We love Angie because she always said YES.’
‘Do you want to do some street theatre, Angie? YES.’
‘Do you want a visit from a writer to become a poet, Angie? YES.’
‘Do you want to learn something new, Angie? YES’
These are lines from a ten minute play performed hourly by three actors, as part of Islands of Milwaukee (IOM) weekend exhibition. Angie was one of the older people who had been involved in the two year project which included a visit from a writer and artist. She had written a poem about a ‘Stroker’ (great name for someone who has had a stroke) and shared her enthusiasm to try anything new, especially painting, if only she could get out of the house.
For the past two years, Anne Basting and colleagues have been concerned about the number of local older people living alone and isolated. The IOM project was developed by a team that….
‘…sought to engage older people living alone or under–connected in their communities. Using playful Questions of the Day we invited folks to share their thoughts, write poems, create stories, sing songs and dance and to connect to each other and their communities at large. ‘
Cards with Questions of the Day were delivered to isolated older people through meals on wheels drivers and home care providers during the two year process. In response, many older people commented that they were unable to get across the road because the traffic lights changed too quickly. IOM took this as a key issue that needed to be changed in order to keep people connected. So they invited the Mayor to three street theatre performances at traffic crossings, involving older people, actors and community members. Angie was actively involved in showing just how difficult it was to get across the traffic lights with a walking aid – and young parents found it just as difficult with toddlers and pushchairs. As a result, the timings of some of the traffic lights were changed.
Milwaukee (Native American name for ‘gathering by the water’) sits on the edge of Lake Michigan but is perhaps best known to British TV viewers for the series Happy Days and the original manufacturing site of Harley Davidson motorbikes. On Sept 20/21, Milwaukee had an ‘Open Doors’ weekend when all the historic buildings were open for the public to visit, including the famous City Hall with its central space open to the eight floors above, lined with beautiful wooden balustrade and iron railings. The IOM exhibition and performance at Milwaukee City Hall invited the general public (and a couple of Winston Churchill Fellows from UK!!) to meet and engage with the project and to consider ‘How will I stay connected to community as I age, how can I be part of creating a more connected community for others?’
Sojourn Theatre performed the ten minute play every hour, capturing the concerns of older people they had contacted, performing songs, words and dance of four individuals, including Angie. At the end of each performance, a shower of white cards fluttered down from the eighth floor, each one repeating a Question of the Day which had gone out to older people living alone.
As a volunteer ‘docent’, I had the job of inviting members of the public to write responses to the questions on the cards, which were then hung on ‘washing lines’ next to information boards fixed on the balustrade above the performance and installation. Many of the questions were about barriers to being involved in their community. ‘What is the well-worn path outside your door?’ was the question that I asked various members of the public as the performance finished.
‘I’m afraid to walk outside my door because I fear I will be attacked. A girl was shot near my house just recently.’
Some of the older people involved came along to City Hall during the weekend event and performed a song or a poem, including Angie who read her poem.
A small, enthralled audience gathered round as New York poet Gary Glazner (more about him shortly) performed Angie’s poem with her, using his ‘Call and Response’ technique of echoing each line of her poetry.
The Islands of Milwaukee project, where the process is as important as the outcome, is a fantastic example of using creative writing and other art forms when consulting with older people about their neighbourhood and the development of Dementia Friendly Communities. Small changes can have a big impact on individuals, where friendliness and understanding comes at a very small price, where the written words become both performance and policy changing. Involving older people in performance and creativity also challenges stereotypes about older people, especially those with dementia, and their ability to contribute to the cultural life of their community.
One successful outcome from the IOM project was the innovative, ongoing partnership across all the organisations involved. This resulted in changes in services as the delivery drivers interacted more with their clients when they distribute the meals on wheels; the care assistants had a new topic of conversation every time they took in a ‘Question of the Day’. Older people were seen as having opinions and involvement in decision-making, not just recipients of care; their sense of self being strengthened each time they shared their thoughts and views. The financial cost of this kind of project can be offset by healthier and happier individuals who are less isolated. One of the statements in the play was ‘Social isolation is the equivalent of fifteen cigarettes a day. That’s a lot of cigarettes’. We all know the impact of cigarettes on health and subsequent health services.
Angie did go on to learn painting and her artwork was seen by thousands on Twitter. She continues to speak out about changes needed to make it easier for people with mobility difficulties to get out and about, reminding us that small changes can make a big difference.
Angie: poet, painter, campaigner, performer.