‘If you could say anything to an audience, what would you say?’ For filmmaker Duncan Cowles, asking this question is as much an act of recognition as it is a search for an answer. In five short films commissioned by Scottish Care and Luminate, Scotland’s creative ageing festival, Duncan takes his camera into North Merchiston Care Home to interview its residents, giving them not only the attention of the lens, but also control over the creative process. If, as French philosopher and activist Simone Weil asserted, ‘attention is the rarest and the purest form of generosity’, these films are gifts to the individuals involved, acknowledging their inherent value and inviting them to share something of themselves in the space that this attention creates.

What emerges is playful and exploratory, as we watch Duncan teach John, an 82-year-old former shipbuilder from Glasgow, about the basics of microphones, or draw wheelchair-bound May into a discussion of what to call her film (‘May: This is your Life’). Each resident speaks to camera, responding to Duncan’s gentle questioning with bittersweet humour and the slight hesitancy of people unaccustomed to the spotlight, before watching the footage back on a laptop, actively engaged in choosing titles and music – and clearly delighted in finding themselves both star and co-director of their very own show.

As we are often reminded, an ageing population poses economic, social and political challenges for all of us, with the number of people aged 65 and over in Scotland set to increase by 53% between 2014 and 2039. However, although the issue is usually framed in economic terms, recently there has been more awareness of ethical perspectives, shifting from a view of older people as a ‘burden’ towards recognising them as a positive asset instead. In a culture where the hyper-visibility of fame and self-promotion tends to skew value, the sidelining of older people risks erasing their rights, such as the right to be treated with dignity and respect and without discrimination. The reassertion of these values, alongside a more positive portrayal of ageing, therefore becomes a vital goal of social justice.

Scottish Care, the representative body for Scotland’s independent social care service, were represented at the event by Carlyn Miller, who also led a discussion into human rights for older people, emphasising how the arts and services can work together to promote and protect these fundamental entitlements. Care and compassion are the true tests of how civilised a society we can claim to be, and, as is all too often forgotten, each of us will experience ‘dependency’ at one time or another, whether in infancy or old age, or during periods of mental or physical illness. Alongside the care system’s necessary provision of support, there is also a call to recognise this, and for this shared vulnerability to provide the basis for mutual empathy and respect.

The creative arts offer one such way to enhance this connectedness, awakening emotional responses in both viewer and creator alike, expressing universal themes even while honouring the uniqueness and individuality of our experiences. In these short films, the process of creating appears therapeutic for the residents of the care home, while the act of reflecting on their past is concentrated by the focus of the camera. By letting the lens rest on the small details of residents’ lives – 102-year-old Charlie Dolan’s black and white wedding photo, a greeting card on a bedside table, Margaret’s framed collage of Elvis cuttings – and interspersing such shots with old footage of 1940s tea dances and now defunct shipyards, Duncan lets us see how everyone’s life is extraordinary in its own way and always worthy of interest.

While there are undoubtedly darker issues around ageing than those touched upon during the event (the growing challenges of dementia and long-term complex health needs; the impact of funding cuts; pressures on unpaid carers; social isolation and abuse), this was intended more as a celebration of individual stories and collective rights, overcoming negative stereotypes and promoting positive views of later life. As Carlyn pointed out, Scottish Care is working hard to embed human rights at the level of practice, not only giving a voice to older people, but also ensuring that these voices are taken into consideration. The event closed with a screening of its short film (2016) created for the Scottish National Action Plan for Human Rights (SNAP), which explores the rights of residents in a care home.


And while care for older people continues to be one of the most pressing issues facing Scotland today, there are also signs of changing attitudes. Reshaping Care for Older People 2011-2021 (RCOP), the Scottish government initiative that hopes to improve sustainability and outcomes, helps fund a wealth of grassroots organisations. These groups celebrate and connect, not only offering much-needed support and social contact, but also mobilising older volunteers into active involvement in their local communities, creating knitting groups, dance classes, cookery and gardening clubs. This positive and empowering approach – ‘ageing is a work of art’ – is precisely what gives this event its title. As Margaret, one of the residents of North Merchiston Care Home urges at the end of her short film: ‘Grab life with both hands. You only get one life. Enjoy it.’ An assertion that rings true no matter how old we may be.

by Clare Blackburne


The short films by Duncan Cowles screened at Declaration were part of his Directed by North Merchiston project, commissioned by Scottish Care and Luminate. The films will be available to view online in the next few weeks - follow @DuncanCowles and @scottishcare on Twitter for the latest news.