Caroline O’Neill explains why a project using the arts to improve the lives of looked after children and adults with dementia, across four local authorities in South Wales, was so successful.

Mobile Phone grass flowers
Looked after children enjoyed a photography project

ArtsConnect is a collaboration of four local authorities within South Wales (Bridgend, Merthyr Tydfil, Rhondda Cynon Taf and the Vale of Glamorgan) with a vision to provide a quality and cost-effective arts service for residents and visitors through a cohesive approach to planning and delivery. During 2013 it was agreed that the target groups would be looked after children and adults with dementia; Being Creatively Active, a programme to offer enhanced quality of life and development opportunities, was created. This was our first collaborative project and successful application to the Arts Council of Wales’ Lottery project funding.

Greater time at the beginning to talk, listen, learn, formulate and structure would have allowed a deeper engagement with all the services involved across each local authority

Adults with dementia were engaged in singing activities in residential homes and day centres, through choral activity provided by opera singer Karl Daymond and interactive concerts provided by Triptych in association with Live Music Now. Observations and comments gathered included that staff also said they had seen a tangible difference in individual residents across the seven weeks, and that the staff themselves had been looking forward to the activities each week.

Looked after children received drama workshops (delivered by Geese Theatre) and participated in a photography project with artists Faye Chamberlain and Michal Iwanowski. Digitalised stories were also undertaken by Breaking Barriers. For the group of young people involved in both the storytelling and the drama production the long-term impact will be quite significant. Involving looked after children in such a powerful and effective way enabled them to examine their own feelings, experiences and behaviours in a safe, supporting and therapeutic way. The two digital stories were also a fantastic way of telling their story, one of which told of a positive experience and the other reflected the difficulties experienced in the care system. The young people were extremely proud of the portrayal of their stories.

This was a pilot programme, and as such the learning outcomes for us are as important as the outcomes experienced by the end users. The programme covered a huge amount of work - eight projects across four local authorities with two service areas in each - in a very tight timescale and on a relatively small budget. Time was a major obstacle throughout the programme and one thing we learnt is that adequate thinking, planning and communicating time is essential. Greater time at the beginning to talk, listen, learn, formulate and structure would have allowed a deeper engagement with all the services involved across each local authority. Similarly, the old adage of ‘funding fewer better’ comes to play here. There was simply too much going on, with too much diversity of work on offer. Bringing partners together at the outset to iron out strategic aims, clarify purpose and set ground rules and aims would have aided the outcomes significantly.

Participants all benefited from the programme, and where partner commitment and engagement was occasionally lacking, there are clear reasons (predominantly linked to communication) why that happened. Overall therefore, we would be confident in stating that this programme was highly successful, and such a model, modified and adapted according to the learning outcomes, could well be repeated and expanded to benefit an even wider community in the future.

Caroline O’Neill is Arts & Creative Industries Manager of Rhondda Cynon Taf County Council.

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Photo of Caroline O'Neill