Reflecting on the arts and hospice care at Hospice UK’s annual conference

Categories: Education.

One of my highlights from this year’s conference was Nigel Hartley’s powerfully moving and insightful talk on the arts and hospice care.

He started with a very personal story: he is now a musician, music therapist and hospice chief executive, but in his youth had been all set to become a professional concert pianist until someone accidentally slammed his hand in a car door when he was 19 – a reminder of how any of our lives and futures can be changed in an instant.

Nigel shared stories of others he has worked with: a dying woman he accompanied on the piano who cast aside her oxygen to sing ‘My way’ because she wanted the recording played at her funeral (which it was, ten days later); a young man struggling with school and authority who wrote a hauntingly beautiful song with a frail patient who had lost the ability to speak. He played both recordings, and like many others in the room I found myself blinking away tears.

But the session wasn’t just about moving stories and catharsis. There was also deep reflection on the nature of creativity, and why creativity matters so much to hospice care.

To be a creative individual requires persistence, curiosity, courage, the ability to find patterns and make connections, to take risks, make mistakes and not being self-limiting: “I make mistakes every single time I perform.”

But creativity doesn’t exist in isolation, so what does it mean to be a creative organisation or a creative community?

In Nigel’s view, creative organisations need to enable people to “be the best they can be”. This means harnessing people’s creativity; fostering new ideas and understanding that it takes long-term commitment and hard work to develop such ideas, and that this inevitably involves taking risks, trying things out, making mistakes and learning from them.

Nigel then talked about creative communities. How can art and creativity help us respond to the fact that death, dying and loss are primarily social experiences? What are the connections and sense of belonging that people develop through art, and how can these foster a deeper sense of community? He shared the example of the hospice choir he’d been involved in initiating at St Christopher’s, and talked about the arts and health promotion.

Nigel’s final reflections were on the artist as leader and an intriguing set of questions, partly informed by his own experience as a musician and chief executive: what does the artist bring as leader? Do we each manage from our own professional skill base and silo?  Does the professional background of a hospice chief executive matter, or make a difference?

Like many of the best sessions, Nigel’s talk generated more questions than answers, but left the whole audience thinking hard about how and why the arts are so profoundly important to hospice care.

Presentations and videos from the conference are available to download from the Hospice UK website.

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