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How arts and culture helps people with dementia in the north

We believe that arts and culture can have a powerful effect on the lives of people with dementia and there is work taking place across the north that demonstrates these benefits. Dementia Awareness Week takes place between 15-21 May this year and here are some examples of just some of this Arts Council funded work.

A centre for people living with dementia is part of a £17 million expansion at Beamish: The Living Museum of the North in County Durham. A terrace of four houses from Marsden Road in South Shields will be copied as part of the museum’s planned 1950s Town. Two of the replicated homes will host pioneering sessions for people living with dementia, older people, and their families and carers - building on acclaimed work already done by the museum. Aged miners’ homes were some of the earliest forms of social housing to help elderly members of mining communities. The museum currently hosts sessions at Orchard Cottage at the 1940s Farm, with activities ranging from sing-alongs and traditional baking to crafts and gardening. More than 100 Beamish staff and volunteers are trained Dementia Friends and Beamish is running a programme of activities for Dementia Awareness Week this year.

Another museum in the north east Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (TWAM), in partnership with occupational therapists, has been running bespoke cultural and heritage programmes for older people with dementia in extra care residences and hospital wards. Using museum objects and archive collections to trigger memories alongside people’s own photos and possessions, they have facilitated engaging conversations between group members. This work is part of the developing TWAM Platinum Programme, a comprehensive culture and heritage programme for people aged over 55 across Tyne & Wear.

Comments from clinical staff include:

The use of stimuli provided by TWAM, such as football memorabilia, old records and clothes, appears to have been effective in allowing some patients to tap into and discuss their autobiographical memories to other members of the group.

I have noticed through my own observation that creating opportunities to reminisce can encourage patients, who can sometimes be withdrawn, to engage with other people. 

Based in Keswick, Theatre by the Lake’s Living well with Dementia programme offers a chance to access the arts in a way that suits individual needs. The theatre hosts relaxed performances and runs regular reading groups, dance sessions, specialist performances and backstage tours, all designed to be dementia friendly. It has partnered with three other local arts organisations (Wordsworth TrustDancing Recall and Prism Arts) to provide a more varied offering to visitors, such as the Stand Long & Grow Tall exhibition. To date 20 staff and 125 volunteers have received training as Dementia Friends and the theatre has just announced that it will be running workshops for a third year.

Raising awareness of dementia in Doncaster has been a passionate mission for artists at darts(Doncaster Community Arts) for many years. It has developed a play called Unlocking Dementiabased on conversations with adults living with dementia and their carers. This interactive performance has turned these conversations into poignant scenes which highlight the daily challenges being faced by those with dementia and the things we can all do to help make life better. Unlocking Dementia continues to be performed in workplaces, doctors’ surgeries, residential care homes, libraries and other community spaces all over Doncaster throughout 2016. So far, 1,116 people have seen the performances across 41 shows and 33 different venues. Watch a short film about Unlocking Dementia.

Creative Age is an 18-month project run by Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (mima) and Gateshead-based charity Equal Arts to develop dementia-friendly creative activities for older adults. Such provision has traditionally centred on reminiscence and memory-based activities. Instead mima’s sessions are about what the individual can do now, in a particular moment, and encourages creativity through story making, touch, doing or making. This enables everyone to get involved, no matter what their ability, in a safe creative environment. Starting soon at mima will be a free weekly drop in creative session, contact Alix for further information,

This May, The Senses: South Yorkshire Dementia Creative Arts Exhibition will take place in Barnsley. Held since 2009, the organisers invite people with dementia, family members and care and support practitioners to submit any form of creative art – a painting, poem or sculpture – for its annual exhibition.

Silver Lining is a project run by Sage Gateshead that brings the benefits of music into care homes. In partnership with bait, an Arts Council Creative people and places programme, Sage Gateshead delivered a bespoke training programme teaching care home staff how to lead music creating sessions with the people they work with at day centres and residential homes across South East Northumberland. The staff now run fun and accessible ukulele-supported communal singing sessions. You can read more about this project in our case study here.

Hoot Creative Arts’ Being Creative project provides quality creative activities for people who are concerned about their memory, or who are in the process of obtaining or already have a diagnosis of early stage dementia. Being Creative works with them and someone they have a connection with, to promote health and wellbeing and support positive relationships. There are two groups, in North Kirklees and Huddersfield, and the sessions include music and song, movement and dance, and visual art.  You can watch a film of Swept Into the Palais, an original piece of music and dance created by the Huddersfield group with musician Rob Crisp here.

Liverpool’s Collective Encounters’ Live & Learn programme offers training for those caring for people with dementia about how the arts can be embedded into their day-to-day caring routine, using theatre as a tool to educate about the experience of living with dementia. The training is run via workshops in care homes and an Arts & Dementia Pocket Guide can be downloaded from their website.  Collective Encounters is also a delivery partner on the National Museum Liverpool’s House of Memories project.

The potential of the arts to improve the lives of people with dementia is huge. Whilst many people with dementia struggle to retain new information, the ability to access long-term memory and emotion remains.  The arts provide a creative expression for these memories and feelings and this in itself reduces anxiety and promotes wellbeing. Annette Burghes, Executive Director at Collective Encounters

Claire Ford is the Founder and Director of iPad engAGE which has been funded through our Grants for the Arts programme over several years. The current Intergenerational Project has received £11,200 and is taking place in South Shields. The engAGE project helps those living with dementia to use tablet computers to improve their engagement and digital confidence and takes place all over the north. As a child, Claire volunteered for the Alzheimer’s Society at a local day centre using both visual arts and music to engage and develop communication skills and is now a freelance Creative Practitioner providing arts programmes to a wide spectrum of vulnerable audiences. In 2011 Claire was awarded a Winston Churchill Fellowship to travel and research Art Access for Older People across the United States.


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