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Endowed Professor Tineke Abma: ‘Help older people feel like they belong’

Older people are often approached from the perspective of their limitations when there is often much they still can and want to do. People with dementia can learn to sing the Matthäus-Passion, for example. According to Professor Tineke Abma, art is a meaningful way to continue to participate.

Abma’s chair is about the participation of older people in society. ‘If older people continue to participate in society, they maintain vitality and a sense of meaning and belonging.’ Belonging is the desire to be part of something without having to change. This is important, says Abma, because people who are beyond retirement age face processes of social exclusion.

People who are beyond retirement age face processes of social exclusion.

‘We all want to belong’, says Abma. ‘I spoke to Franc Janssen, a 70-year-old with dementia, who told me that it is really unpleasant to feel that people no longer expect anything from him. They think he can’t do anything anymore and that everything is too difficult for him because his cognitive skills are no longer as good. It really upsets him when people speak to him like a toddler. Can’t we make more room for him’, Abma wonders. ‘Because being excluded hurts and people with dementia feel that all too well.’

Deeper connection through art

Art provides space and invites participation, says Abma. ‘Not art with a capital A but creative expression and sensory experiences. Older people are approached from the perspective of what they can no longer do. The good thing about arts activities is that they appeal to people’s creative potential, to what they still can do and their need to keep developing. That arouses positive emotions.’

Take the woman who thought her body could no longer learn complicated movements but surprised herself during dance lessons.  And Franc Janssen, who is a member of the participation choir and was really proud to have learned a passage from the Matthaüs-Passion together with his singing buddy. ‘It’s destigmatising’, says Abma. ‘And as many arts activities are in groups, participants also meet others and connect with them on a deeper level, a connection that is often missing in their daily lives.’

An older woman lays her head on her grandchild’s pregnant belly.
A woman lays her head on her grandchild’s pregnant belly. Photo: Jane van Herwijnen (from the Nana series)

Research into the effects of art

Most people intuitively feel that art helps older people feel like they belong, says Abma, but there is little in the way of scientific proof. She and her team want to change this. It is important in her studies that older people participate rather than only being talked about by others. She is looking in one of her studies at what dance and drama do to people who perform as well as at the effects on the audience. Does connection arise? Do people start to look differently at older people?


Abma will give her inaugural lecture on 23 June but the celebrations have already begun. The ‘The Art of Belonging’ exhibition, which she created with curator Sandrine van Noort, opened in the LUMC Gallery at the start of June. Various artists show what it means to be old in our society. Abma’s face lights up as she talks about the opening. ‘It was fantastic. Best of all was how a 90-year-old woman whose photo features in the exhibition came to the gallery. In the photo she is holding her head against her grandchild’s pregnant belly. She came to the opening pushing a pram with her great-grandchild inside. Talk about intergenerational connections. That was such a special moment because it is exactly what I stand for: not talking about older people but helping them participate and feel they are welcome and us making room for them.’


Before Tineke Abma’s inaugural lecture on 23 June, a symposium will be held at Pieterskerk in Leiden from 12.30. The symposium will include performances by a ‘participation choir’ and dancers with Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis. There will also be a panel discussion about the art of belonging and staying connected at an older age. More information and registration.

Alongside professor, Abma is the Executive Director of Leyden Academy on Vitality and Ageing, an institute that helps improve the quality of life of older people.

Text: Dagmar Aarts
Banner photo: Franc Janssen’s participation choir

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