New world for senior actors

The elderly are giving the thumbs-up to the myriad activities arts groups are now offering them, from theatre work to music lessons

Under the glare of spotlights, 58-year-old Kris Lim is transformed: She is a giggly schoolgirl in the first bloom of love in one scene, a long-suffering wife bound by marriage to an ailing mother-in-law in another.

Seven years ago, Ms Lim - a mother of two and a doting grandmother of two - made her tentative foray into acting when she joined The Necessary Stage's Theatre for Seniors.

Now, striding across the stage with the ease and confidence of a professional during a performance by the group earlier this month at the Esplanade, Ms Lim is proof that age is no barrier to pursuing art.

"If you have the will and right attitude, I don't see any challenges in picking up the craft now," she says.

She is among the growing ranks of seniors whose golden years have prompted a renaissance, as they find the time and greater opportunities to delve into the arts and culture.

One of the driving forces of this silver revolution is the concerted push to get the arts out to seniors, making such programmes affordable and accessible and sparking greater interest and awareness among the elderly.

In 2012, the Arts and Culture Strategic Review Committee - tasked with shaping Singapore's arts and cultural policy for the years to come - flagged the elderly as a group that stands to benefit from better access to arts and culture programmes.

When you think of arts for old people, you think of line dancing, taiji - the very ah ma, ah soh type of art. But we can do more. We just need the chance.''

RETIREE PHILIP CHAN, who has tried flower arrangement and contemporary dance, on the arts-related activities for seniors

Suggestions included enriching People's Association (PA) networks with more of such activities, expanding the range of activities available to seniors, who lamented the lack of variety, or starting an arts festival with seniors in mind - all areas where strides have been made since.

As Singapore's population greys - by 2030, one in five Singaporeans will be 65 years and older - the country is striving to find ways to help seniors stay active.

The arts, which is less physically strenuous compared with, say, sports, and can be a medium for inter-generational bonding, would be an important aspect of active ageing, the review noted.

Three years on and seniors here say they can better feel the presence of the arts in their lives.

There is now a richer and more sophisticated array of arts and culture programmes for seniors - film appreciation courses, poetry lessons and pottery classes are just some of the choices - broadening their understanding of the arts.

Retiree Philip Chan has, to the bemusement of his wife and friends, taken up flower arrangement at community clubs and tripped over his feet during his first, and last, attempt at contemporary dance.

"When you think of arts for old people, you think of line dancing, taiji - the very ah ma, ah soh type of art," says the 64-year-old, using the Hokkien words for grandmother and the elderly. "But we can do more. We just need the chance."

And these chances are now within the grasp of seniors here. The PA's new Senior Academy programme, for instance, offers arts courses at community centres, including terrarium-making and dancing to Korean pop.

There is also the National Arts Council's Silver Arts festival, which in 2012 started off as a weekend event, with a slim offering of 13 arts programmes catered to seniors, but has three years on swelled into a month-long extravaganza.

This September, the festival boasted its largest line-up yet: a dazzling spread of 50 programmes that included a double-bill Chinese folk dance and ballet show by seniors and a creative writing workshop.

The $750,000 festival - it cost $500,000 last year - attracted more than 32,000 people, more than quadruple the number in 2012, and kindled the interest of seniors, who have asked the council to consider more regular programming throughout the year.

The 2015 budget, said the council, takes into account the wider range of programming and special highlights to celebrate SG50, such as an inter- generational Malay pop concert.

Earlier this month, the Esplanade also drew flocks of seniors with its annual A Date With Friends, an arts festival dedicated to seniors.

Since its launch in 2004, it has expanded to offer a more well- rounded experience, including a variety of theatre and dance programmes on top of the usual music offerings, says its lead programmer Desmond Chew.

Last year, there were about 36 programmes. This year, there were 57 over four days and included workshops to help seniors pick up new skills.

Tickets to ukulele and harmonica workshops, with spaces for 40 participants each, were all snapped up a week before the event.

"Many of the older generation did not have the luxury of enjoying the arts as a hobby - not just being on stage, but also learning to play an instrument or dance," he explains.

"Now that they have more time on their hands, we want to give them the opportunity to not only enjoy the arts, but also be involved in it."

And beyond arts as enrichment for the elderly, the concept of incorporating the arts into eldercare has caught on.

"Seniors are still capable of creative expression and this allows them to have a sense of control, promotes identity and helps them be in touch with themselves," says Dr Philip Yap, senior consultant for geriatric medicine at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, which has programmes such as Chinese painting and drama therapy for the elderly.

The National Arts Council, too, partners organisations in the eldercare sector to look at ways to integrate arts into their programmes. It has supported more than 30 eldercare centres through the WeCare Arts Fund since 2012.

But while seniors seem to have responded well to the flourishing of arts and cultural programmes targeted at them, there are still some issues that may hold them back.

For the frugal, cost is a worry. For others, it is the fear of losing face.

Organisations are aware of the cost factor: Programmes in the council's Silver Arts festival are free and the Esplanade offers senior concessions for some of its programmes.

Seniors also suggest smaller class sizes to ease the fear of looking silly and want programmes held at more locations islandwide, as some are too frail to travel.

"Don't underestimate the void deck. It's the place a lot of people my age go to when we want to jalan- jalan," says Mr Chan with a laugh, using the Malay phrase for walking around. "Or the library. It's a nice place and air-conditioned."

For the National Library Board's Time Of Your Life: Journeys for the 50+ festival last month, which offers talks and workshops for seniors on a range of topics, 20 out of the 70 programmes on offer last month were arts-related.

This year, 14 libraries were involved, up from 10 last year.

Ms Joanna Zhang, the library board's head of library services for seniors, says it received requests for programmes to be held at more libraries and conducted in mother tongue languages, a point seniors Life spoke to agreed with.

But most importantly, when it comes to courting seniors with arts, organisations have to be canny in selling the benefits, says Ms Grace Tan, 60, who attended a film- making course for seniors this year.

"We've been around for so long, we don't see the point of doing new, unfamiliar things.

"One important pitch is always: It's for your children and grandchildren. Don't you want to be the cool grandma or grandpa? If you learn something about arts, you'll never be a boring grandma."

First documentary at 60

Back then, it was an incomprehensible beast: crouched on the desk, silver and sleek, wafer-thin, meeting her gaze with a glossy blank screen.

Now, months later, Ms Grace Tan can speak of the encounter with a laugh: "When I first saw it, I was like... wow, how can we switch it on? What have I gotten myself into?"

"I'm not an Apple kid, so I had to learn everything from scratch slowly, slowly. But you know what they say - slow and steady, right?"

The slender 60-year-old senior consultant at a training firm would, over the course of 12 weeks, conquer that 21.5-inch iMac, spending hours splicing video and audio on it to make a short documentary.

Armed with a video camera, Ms Tan and her two teammates had hit the streets to shoot her three- minute video Different Strokes For Different Folks, which captured the experiences of dragon-boaters both young and old.

"It was a video about people with a passion. And these were passions so strong, they broke down the barriers of age," says Ms Tan, a divorcee who has two single children.

"The video was about a sport that did that. But art does that too. Like film-making, it's a bit of old and young, modern and traditional."

Ms Tan was one of the participants in the Recording Reality creative arts project earlier this year, part of the National Arts Council's annual Silver Arts initiative. The 12-week workshop led by film-maker Jasmine Ng equipped seniors with skills to produce their own documentaries.

"I never imagined I would have the chance to make my own film. Film always seems like something only young or rich people can do. But, no. Anyone can do it - you can do it if you're 25 or 75," says Ms Tan.

Unfamiliar technology was the biggest challenge, she recalls. Most of the participants had never seen an iMac. Some struggled to even hold the camera.

"But we all learnt," says Ms Tan. "Just because you didn't grow up using this technology doesn't mean you can't learn it. You just need to put your mind to it."

She dabbled in theatre and painting when she was younger, but never had the time to commit herself to the arts.

Entering her golden years gave her the chance to rediscover herself and explore her interests.

"We didn't have these opportunities when we were younger. But it's very different now. Arts is something important. Now, there are so many programmes for everyone," she says.

"So, for people in my generation who missed out when we were young because we didn't have the chance, there's no excuse for us not to try.

"When it comes to learning new things, there's no full stop. At most, there's just a comma - then you continue."

Turning a tomato into a fish

Flicks of her knife could turn a tomato into a goldfish and make tulips out of chillies.

But three decades ago, Ms Doris Khoo's art - objects carved from vegetables such as radishes and cucumbers - raised eyebrows.

"There were people who were very interested, but a lot more people found the idea very strange. They just didn't understand what I was doing. They didn't see it as art. My family themselves didn't understand," recalls the 69-year-old widow, who has no children.

But the concept of food as a medium for art goes down more easily now.

This year, Ms Khoo had a taste of how much the arts scene has grown in the decades since.

She attended Between Servings, a 10-week food performance course that encourages seniors to tell stories and express themselves using real food.

They used raw ingredients to create pieces of art and merged food with other mediums such as prose and poetry.

Run by Spang&Lei - experiential artist Wen Lei and performance studies specialist Serena Pang, both in their 30s - the workshop is part of the National Arts Council's Silver Arts initiative this year.

"It's very different now. Years ago, I used food to make art and some people said I was just playing around," says Ms Khoo.

"But now people appreciate different forms of art. What we understand as being art has grown. It's not just with paints and pencils. Art can be anything and people see that now."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 17, 2015, with the headline 'New world for seniors'. Print Edition | Subscribe