I have been involved in the field of arts and older people for 25 years and recognise that attitudes to later life have changed dramatically in that time. When Equal Arts started developing programmes in the North East in care homes with dancers, musicians and visual artists there were a handful of arts organisations in the country delivering work, among them Entelechy and Green Candle Dance Company, both in London and still going strong. There has been a huge growth in the field of creative ageing, which means that there are now many organisations around the UK (and internationally) that have recognised how important this area of work is.
We believe that the opportunity to have access to the arts and to be creative throughout life is something we should all have until our last breath. We have been part of the “dementia friendly” movement to ensure that arts organisations offer programmes that are accessible to all. We have developed the “Imagination model” which doesn’t rely on reminiscence or memory but enables everyone to take part and create in the moment. It has been an exciting time, with galleries all over the world influenced by MoMA’s Meet me programme, specifically for people with dementia and their families and carers. They have in turn have been influenced by our work, and are now running a more inclusive adult programme called Prime Time. We feel very much part of an international movement and have lots of visitors from all over the world.
Running parallel to this recognition has been the privatisation of social care, which means the care home sector is dominated by private companies. I struggle with the fact that we, a charity, raise funding to deliver in private care homes, which often charge £700/800 a week. We have made some in-roads in getting the businesses to pay but it is galling to see the amount of money spent on soft furnishings and furniture, making them look like 5-star hotels when staff are paid so badly and we are working so hard to bring in specialist participatory artists to make a difference to the lives of those living in their care. Also, crucially, the “extra care“ sector is growing, but this often means people are isolated and lonely in flats, with no support beyond 15-minute appointments for physical care, delivered by under paid, untrained staff. We have worked hard to develop a relationship with the Tyne & Wear Care Alliance, which delivers training for care staff, which means we are now contracted to deliver artist-led creative training so enable ALL staff to understand the importance of creativity, for themselves as well as those the care for. We have worked in some care homes for 10 years and this has meant that we have been able to influence the culture of the home, developing long-term relationships with local schools, museums and other community groups.
I still think my vision of artist residencies in every care home is achievable – but I am ever the optimist. I love seeing arts graduates excited about working in this area and also care staff who deliver some fantastic care, which has creativity at its heart.
Another area of rapid recent growth is in access work with arts venues. I was involved in the development of the Alzheimer’s Society guide to becoming a dementia-friendly arts venue, and Equal Arts’ Creative Age programme is now running in six galleries/arts venues in the North. Led by the interests of the older people with dementia and their carers, each venue sets their own Creative Age Challenge which engages the community and raises funding for the groups to continue. In this way, we want to raise the profile of the work and put older people at the centre of its development. I’m keen for this to grow and involve national and international venues.
Alice Thwaite, Co-Director of Equal Arts, has been a pioneer in the field of creative ageing in the UK, since developing the organisation to specialise in work with older people in the early 1990s. She received a Churchill Fellowship in 2010 and visited Ireland and the USA looking at good practice.
Equal Arts, based in Gateshead, brings together the arts, care and health sectors to ensure older people have a better quality of life through access to creativity. The HenPower programme is run by Equal Arts and is now operating in care settings across the country, and internationally. The organisation also runs many intergenerational projects, bringing young people and older people together to create together.
Alice is keen to share good practice and was part of the Prime Minister’s task group on developing ‘dementia friendly’ arts venues. Alice has also worked with the Royal Academy, presented at MoMa in New York and been part of a British Council delegation to Tokyo. She is also a Dignity Champion.
The author is writing in a personal capacity. The views contained in this article do not necessarily reflect those of LAHF or the organisations described therein. Copyright is retained by the author.