A note on the Tavistock Institute 70th Anniversary Festival

by Olya Khaleelee

Earlier this year I was taken aback to be invited by Mannie Sher to join him and other ‘senior’ colleagues to run an event for the ‘Silver Generation’ as part of the Tavistock Institute’s 70th anniversary celebrations. Only those over 70 were permitted to take part although as it turned out one of the five staff and a few of the participants were in their late sixties.

This is one of the most creative designs for a group relations event that I have ever experienced. Because of the venue constraints – held in the Garden Museum of Lambeth Palace on the South bank of the river Thames – the entire event took place in one large room overlooking the Museum garden, a rather beautiful space. The room itself also had many plants in it which gave a sense of fertility and growth and was therefore an environment that offered hope.

The event was co-sponsored between the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations and a charity called Ageing Better. After the close of the conference, those participants who wished to do so, could offer themselves for interview about their experience.

The primary task was firstly, to reflect on the social, physical and psychological experiences of ageing – loss and hope; love and death; experience and wisdom, missed opportunities and daring to grasp a few more. Secondly, it provided an opportunity to reflect on peoples’ histories and hopes for the future.

The event was held each morning from 9.30-1.00 p.m. from Tuesday 17th until Friday, 20th October, the last day of the celebrations. Around 27 participants came each day although it varied as some went to the other celebratory events that were taking place simultaneously in other parts of London. The membership therefore varied a little from day to day. Some dropped in, some dropped out. The age range was 66-84, two thirds were women and the membership weas international as a number had come specially to attend the festival celebrations.

The conference was designed with an Opening plenary followed by Large Community meetings, Small Community meetings, Life Story meetings and 
Review meetings. Room dividers were used to provide some privacy during Small Community meetings which were essentially small groups. Apart from the Life Story meetings, scribes were assigned to all of the other sessions so that a record of the themes of the event could be made for publication later. Staff varied from session to session as to whether they were in a consulting role or a scribe role.

In contrast to Small Community meetings, for the Life Story sessions participants circulated and chose their own groups to which the staff then assigned themselves. The groups offered each participant time to say something about their own lives and this was a most moving and poignant event. Each group appeared to represent an aspect of life, whether to do with the Holocaust, loss of country, childhood separation because of boarding school, or whether it was to do with joy in remaking family life, hope through having had grandchildren or a new partner, and the creativity that they had built into their lives through their own interests.

One significant feature of the conference dynamic was the presence of a couple, she in her mid-seventies, he in his eighties – clearly lovers – who became a dominating theme within the conference. They represented the possibilities of hope in later life and were naturally envied, especially when so many participants were either alone or facing major life difficulties. They also mirrored the couple represented by the Director and his wife who was also a participant.

The kind of themes that emerged were around energy, life, but also decline and pain; around parenthood and grandparenthood; around loss, ageing, vulnerability, and anxiety; around making way for the next generation yet continuing to contribute to society; around the love of travel and music, and many more.

For me, one of the most poignant themes to emerge in the conference was the possibility that those in the silver generation could still make new friends through those they had met during the conference, a really unusual experience at this stage of life, and a balance to the sadness of having lost spouses, close friends and colleagues.

Of all the group relations conferences I have attended whether as a member, staff member or director, this conference, despite all the sadness and difficulties within the content, was surprisingly the most enjoyable.

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