Streetwise Community Circus keeps older people clowning around

People of all ages enjoy the circus but clowning around can have serious health benefits for older people. Jenny Lee visited a Belfast circus class for the over-60s and found out how fun and co-ordination skills can combine to give senior citizens a new lease of life

Jenny Lee
11 May, 2016 01:00

JUGGLING, plate spinning, unicycling and stilt walking – these are just some of the activities that a group of youthful over-60s enjoy practising on a Friday morning in a south Belfast community hall.

Over the past 20 years Streetwise Community Circus has been demonstrating the positive impact the arts can have on health and wellbeing with young people, people with disabilities and the elderly.

Now, with more awareness than ever of the key role the arts have in tackling isolation and improving mental health among older people, it is continuing with Belfast Age-ility Circus, formerly funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland as part of its Arts and Older People Programme.

There was plenty of laughter, camaraderie, concentration, enthusiasm and agility in evidence among the group when I visited them at Lorne Community Centre. One of the oldest members is 85-year-old Ellie Taylor, who has been attending the class for two and half years and "wouldn't miss it". She started going after her husband became ill and credits it for keeping her agile.

“You have to make a life of your own. I have seen neighbours get ill and sit at home all day and have meals delivered; I'm fortunate to be physically well and at circus you make new friends and learn new things. It really makes you concentrate and think and as the saying goes if you don’t use it, you lose it," says Ellie, who practices juggling at home.

“I want to get better at things," adds Ellie, whose next goal is an under-the-leg trick with the 'diabolo', a type of juggling prop.

A recent review by scientists from York, Liverpool and Newcastle universities highlighted that loneliness can have a serious physical affect on our health. The research which looked at 181,000 people, found that, for those who were lonely and isolated, the risk of heart disease was raised by 29 per cent and stroke by 32 per cent.

Circus skills are particularly beneficial due to providing continuous coordination and balance practice. Juggling involves making continual reflex 'decisions' in order to catch objects. Even those who have trouble walking can learn to juggle while sitting down and it's not stressful on the joints.

And by concentrating and focusing your mind on mastering your balance and new skills, it is also the perfect stress reliever.

Retired primary school teacher Sylvia Richardson (63) joined the circus group a year and a half ago.

"Retirement gives you the freedom to challenge yourself and do crazy things.We have such fun; it keeps the mind focused and, hopefully, the Alzheimer's at bay," she says.

"Another member told me once that 'when you are a child you are told not to clown around and now you are retired you can do what you want'. That is so true, I'm going through a rebellious stage now and I think my next challenge is the stilts,” says Sylvia, who has already perfected the 'flower stick' and juggling.

As well as her new-found skills, like the others in the group Sylvia most welcomes the camaraderie.

"What I wasn’t expecting was the friendships with such a wide range of ages. We socialise outside the group including theatre trips and even mountaineering."

Dr Graham McFarlane is a former anthropology academic at Queen's University Belfast. The 64-year-old, who retired four years ago, has been coming to circus for just over a year. It's an interest he shares with his 14-year-old grandson, who has been doing circus since he was 10.

"He finds my circus abilities amusing. He does help me practice; I think what he enjoys most is the feeling of being better at something than me," laughs Graham, who describes his Friday-morning circus class as "the highlight of my week".

"I enjoy the companionship, learning new skills and the feeling you get at the end of it. Then there is the mental activity of focusing and even if you are dropping things, you are getting physical activity. By the end of the class you are genuinely elated and ready for a nap.”

Jim Webster of Streetwise Community Circus is adamant that age isn't a barrier when it comes to learning "new tricks".

"The joy with the circus is it’s in the moment and it's non-competitive. It’s a personal challenge and people find their own strengths. Older people are more confident about what they like and don’t like. It’s harder to get them to step up and try some apparatus but once they do it they absolutely love it," says Jim.

He is delighted to see the growing friendship and confidence among the older participants, who recently showcased their skills in Belfast's MAC theatre in an event as part of the Arts and Age Festival and to celebrate 20 years of Streetwise.

"Our organisation is about working with groups where you can have an impact. We are continuing to develop new opportunities including a new partnership with the Alzheimer’s Society and the youth justice system.”

:: Streetwise Community Circus Age-ility group meet in Morton Community Centre, off the Lisburn Road in Belfast. The class is run in a relaxed sociable atmosphere and beginners are always welcomed. For further information telephone 028 9068 7828.

11 May, 2016 01:00 Life