The Arts for Health Partnership Programme, West Cork was first initiated in 2002 by Justine Foster, Programme Manager at West Cork Arts Centre, together with Pat O’Mahony and Shirley O’Shea from the Southern Health Board (HSE) as a pilot project to improve the quality of people's lives in community hospitals. Due to its huge success, it is now operating in eleven healthcare settings all over West Cork in rural Ireland and is also supported by Cork Education and Training Board and Cork County Council. The programme is offered to over 700 older people who reside in community hospitals or attend one of the day care facilities in the area. The main idea, bringing arts and culture to those who are usually deprived of it, is at the heart of the programme. After all, “arts and culture are a human right” says Justine Foster “as everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts” referring to Article 27 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights . A team of professional artists, including visual artists, musicians, poets, deliver the programme, collaborating closely with the healthcare professionals who work in the hospitals and day care centers. Together they are successfully facing the challenge of finding a balance between hospital regulations and creativity.
In a weekly Podcast, presenter Liz Clark, a musician on the Programme, talks about her role in the programme, the challenges the artists, partners and staff face in delivering the programme, and the benefits and outcomes of the programme for the people who participate. One issue that becomes apparent in the conversations, is the importance of social contact and the time needed to build relationships with the people taking part. Every participant has a unique history and different personal challenges to face. Working together therefore needs trust and reciprocal respect. Only then is the goal of meaningful creative engagement and the opportunity to access lifelong learning achievable.
But what happens if social contact is not possible any longer? Due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, hospitals are closed to all but essential staff. The daycare centres cannot open at all. Not many of us can imagine what this must mean to older people dependent on the healthcare settings. While most people today have access to the internet, can use video calls to talk to family members or stay in contact via social media, some older people do not have these options and are now facing a time of isolation and loneliness, particularly with poor and unreliable broadband infrastructure in some parts of rural West Cork.
The current situation requires a lot of creativity and rethinking by the artists to keep the programme going - and how important that is need hardly be said. Of the first streamed session in Schull Community Hospital Roisin Walsh, Clinical Nurse Manager said, “It was fantastic, enjoyed by one and all including myself. Very hard but you (Liz) make it look easy.” While Liz Clark is able to live stream her music sessions to a small group of residents on a large drop down screen, with residents watching meters apart, creating this much needed celebratory occasion is not always possible. Visual artist Sarah Ruttle describes her approach in facing this challenge, “Similar to the long-distance relationships and communication shared between families who have been separated by long distance of land or sea, the creative exchange, relationship and conversation built through the Arts for Health programme can continue, although in a different way. The significant challenge our healthcare staff and older people are facing at this moment are beyond our understanding. If our work of creative engagement can bring a glimpse of light to those we normally work with in our Community Hospital then it is incredibly important to me to do what I can.”
The artists too are mindful of not bringing an extra workload to the hospital staff and management are taking an extremely well planned approach to the new level of infection control measures put in place. Sarah Ruttle is currently developing a new five week project to connect with the participants of the programme, without being there in person. Along with a series of pre recorded conversational workshops, Sarah is preparing packages for posting to be shared with residents isolating in their rooms, who know Sarah and are missing the sessions. “I count it a privilege to continue to share in a conversation with these participants and committed healthcare staff, for now, at our social distance”, Sarah tells me.
Like Sarah, the other artists of the Arts for Health programme are developing their own creative solutions to overcome spatial and social distance. One big project that has been rethought in order to enable its delivery despite the COVID-19 regulations was initiated by Tess Leak and Sharon Wooley. They created a postal project called Museum of Song. What was originally planned as an on-site project, inspired by Drimoleague Singing Festival, is now taking place via social media and traditional mail. Sharon and Tess are now sending packages filled with poetry and songs to participants at St. Joseph’s Unit, Bantry General Hospital and Dunmanway, Schull and Skibbereen Community Hospitals and with villagers from Drimoleague.
The participants are encouraged to respond to themes offered by the artists in their parcel. The first theme was ‘The Songs of Our Mothers and Fathers’. Tess and Sharon are eagerly awaiting creative feedback from the participants, which will then be presented on the Arts for Health website. “this project is working out really well, it seems to move to fit each person's ability, a particular skill of Tess...Beauty and culture and connection awaits inside with poems, songs, pictures, beautifully presented with things to open admire and read…. This has created many hours of pondering and discussion in St.Josephs.” describes Sarah Cairns, Activity Director, St. Joseph’s Care of the Elderly Unit, Bantry General Hospital. Awaiting a lift in restrictions is a live outdoor singing performance by Camilla Greshiel hoped to take place in week five of the project, inspired by the singers on the balcony in Italy.
These projects are only a small sample of how creative work is still taking place in healthcare settings despite the restrictions caused by the global pandemic. All these creative solutions to our current situation, that we may well encounter again, gives us hope of overcoming it and emerging stronger from the crisis. To me, it is a comforting thought, that there are people like the artists from the Arts for Health programme, who do everything possible to ensure that older people are not forgotten or deprived of their human right of culture. After all, I hope to be old one day, too. Images taken from the Arts for Health Website