Gerard Keane and Siobhan MacCobb describe Inter-Act's integrated arts project for older people which was facilitated by the Irish Museum of Modern Art's Education and Community Programme.


It was a process. It was a conference. It was a book launch. In fact, it was all three, and it came from a wish by agencies involved in ‘Inter-Action’ to creatively explore integrative opportunities for older adults with learning disabilities.

Being healthy, being ‘successful’, being young and capable of actively partaking in training, education or work have historically featured highly in our society’s values. Being ‘old’, ‘retired’, a ‘senior citizen’ have tended to be viewed otherwise.

Services for people with learning disabilities are social constructs and, as such, may inherit such a value system from the parent society. At an individual or personal level, the process of ageing can create additional challenges for older people in terms of adjusting to changes to their life situations. Whereas most younger people take for granted the instinctive processes of adapting and seeking to understand their changing relationships with their communities and their environment, older people tend to place greater reliance on reflective experiences and perspectives in order to adjust to life-span or other changes.

The situation can be even more complex for older people with learning disabilities, who may have spent many years in ‘special’ services which may have generated a relatively narrow tapestry of experiences, lack of control over maintaining contact with family and friends and, possibly, little engagement with the wider community.

These issues and challenges form the rationale for a process which resulted in a conference, and which has generated the material for a publication.

The Process

The process sought to provide a format and opportunity for older people from a variety of backgrounds to meet, engage, reflect, make meaning and connections through words and art. Thirty participants took part. Ten of them were from St Michael’s Parish Active Retirement Art Group in Inchicore, Dublin, and the others were from four Dublin-based learning disability agencies: St. John of God’s, Carmona and Menni Services; St. Michael’s House; and Stewart’s Hospital.

The participants met in two groups of fifteen, for two hours each week, over a four-month period. Sessions were facilitated by a staff member each from the Irish Museum of Modern Art, and from the participating agencies. Each session began with themes suggested by the facilitators, such as ‘school days’, ‘holidays’, ‘pass-times’, ‘chores’. The participants were also invited to suggest additional themes.

They were invited to talk and to visually represent their memories on paper. Open-ended questions were used to promote discussion and reflections. With the permission of the participants, the sessions were video-taped and copies of the transcription were given to the participants. A selection of the memories, with accompanying visual representations, were subsequently reproduced in book form.

The process of collecting the material was based on simplicity, and its perceived success by all the participants would suggest that similar initiatives should be explored with older people in other communities.

The Publication

A book entitled I was born a baby: Older people, different lives (recorded memories through their words and art) was launched by Dr Tom Moffatt, TD, Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (with responsibility for older people), during a conference in the Irish Museum of Modern Art on 23 May 2000- The book reproduces a selection of the verbal memories and visual representations of the participants in the joint project. It has been critiqued by Books Ireland as ‘a pure and valuable store of memories’. In her foreword, Maeve Binchy wrote: ‘… while we talk and are encouraged to write down our conversations we are building more bridges and opening up more doors to our imagination, our memories and our dreams.’

The Conference: ‘Life-Long Learning, Integration, and Inclusion in Society for All Older People – A Focus on the Visual Arts’.

‘Adult education and art allow people to make meaning, to make connections. Making meaning is central to developmental and learning processes that continue throughout the lifespan as we encounter new experiences, challenges, issues and crises. Art is an important catalyst of learning. It can promote new ways of thinking, perceiving, acting and interacting. It can promote physical and mental health – well-being – where both mind and body are stimulated with ideas and creative activities’.

These issues were explored in a two-day conference which was held in the Irish Museum of Modern Art on 22-23 May last. The conference was attended by representatives of groups and services for older people; by persons and organisations involved in art and museum education; and by health service providers for older people with disabilities. Following the conference, it is anticipated that a policy statement will be developed which will propose the inclusion of all older people, including those with disabilities, in all future exchequer-funded art endeavours.

(I was born a baby (Dublin, Museum of Modern Art in association with the Inter-Action Network of Agencies, 2000; ISBN 1-873654-87-1; price £5.00) is available from the participating learning disability agencies or from the Irish Museum of Modern Art (Tel: 01-612 9900).)