Susan Langford MBE is the director and founder of intergenerational arts charity Magic Me. Here, she tells us more about the charity’s work and its name...

So why is it called Magic Me?”

30 years ago, when Magic Me was a new arts charity in east London, at least one child in each project group asked me this question. I was inviting them to join an intergenerational arts project – drama, visual arts, music – linking them and their junior school with older people living in a local care home. It would mean creative work, fun and making, but also going to a place which might not be easy to visit, with adults they didn’t know. Where did the magic come in? My response was to say, “Try it for a few weeks, then you can tell me.”

In 1989 it was much harder than it is now to find magic in the dreary, institutional care home corridors and ‘lounges’ full of hard chairs arranged with their backs to the windows. Establishing creative workshops in this environment was tough, but the children’s arrival brought laughter, surprises, art materials to experiment with, colour, ideas to mull over, choices to be made. Residents who had become withdrawn and non-communicative, often as an act of self-protection in a world with little privacy, awakened. Children learned new ways to communicate, often non-verbal, and grew in confidence as their older partners responded.

“So why is it called Magic Me?” One boy’s definition stays with me:

Well, it's like we take a magic carpet to the old people’s home, and they can get on it, and go anywhere they like.

As a definition of the arts’ capacity to transport us into imaginative worlds it’s hard to beat.

These early pilot projects demonstrated to me, and more importantly, care home managers, headteachers, funders and others in the care, education and arts systems, that intergenerational arts practice had much to offer both younger and older participants.

Activities had to be carefully planned, offering multiple ways to engage people of all generations and energy levels, including those with living with dementia, sensory impairments or frailty. Older people and staff needed to be at the heart of developing any new project.

Constellations photography and storytelling project with Coopers Court and Halley School, Tower Hamlets E3, part of Magic Me’s Arts and Ages programme. © Holly Falconer for Magic Me, 2019

Constellations photography and storytelling project with Coopers Court and Halley School, Tower Hamlets E3, part of Magic Me’s Arts and Ages programme. © Holly Falconer for Magic Me, 2019

As Magic Me grew, I recruited an amazing, talented group of artists from many art forms, and together we grew our own pioneering arts practice. Negotiating with staff and ‘positively disrupting’ habitual ways of doing things were part and parcel of our approach.

Our programme grew quickly to serve older people living in ‘continuing care wards’ in Mile End Hospital, including Private Lives, Public Faces, a photography project with patients, staff and local secondary school students, resulting in a public exhibition in the main entrance.

Everyone, including hospital managers, deemed the project a great success, but six months later its true power became apparent. Patients moved from the wards to a brand-new nursing home. The manager told me she liked to take a Polaroid photo of each resident, to help staff learn their names.

I very quickly learned who’d been part of Private Lives. They insisted on looking in a mirror and brushing their hair before anyone took a photo of them.

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60 years of Paintings in Hospitals

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Susan Langford MBE is Director/Founder of Magic Me, which in 2019 celebrates its 30th birthday. Visit the Magic Me website to find out more about their current work.