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An ArtsProfessional feature in partnership with the Cultural Commissioning Programme

When will all commissioners recognise that activities like dancing and singing help maintain older people’s quality of life and independence, asks Jessica Harris.

Photo of men dancing
‘Older Men Moving’, a Tower Hamlets project delivered by Green Candle Dance Company

Green Candle Dance Co

A slew of reports in recent years have considered the implications of an ageing society and the need to enable older people to have quality of life and maintain independence for as long as possible. There is also a growing body of evidence on the benefits for older people of engaging in the arts, in terms of quality of life, physical and mental wellbeing and reducing isolation.

The evidence base may not be complete, but then how complete is it for many other approaches?

At the Cultural Commissioning Programme, we are interested in what this means for arts and cultural organisations and for wider systemic change. There are pockets of excellent practice across the country, but at what point will arts and cultural engagement be taken up wholesale by commissioners of services for older people? At what point will the benefits for individuals, service planners and the wider health and social care eco-system be recognised? Many reports and initiatives support this direction of travel:

  • Putting People First, a national and local concordat, talks of ensuring that older people have the best possible quality of life and equality of independent living.
  • The Care Act enacted recognises the need for people in receipt of care to have access to a full range of opportunities, including social ones.
  • The National Dementia Strategy stresses the importance of activities which support quality of life, positively having an impact on mortality, depression, physical function and behavioural symptoms, but notes that these activities are seldom available.

The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Age-Friendly Cities and Communities initiative reinforces these messages. It says: “Health and well-being are not only determined by our genes and personal characteristics but also by the environment into which we are born and live throughout the life course.” WHO characterises this environment as one where people participate in community life. Manchester, the UK’s first formally WHO-endorsed age friendly city, is working to ensure that the city’s cultural offer is available to all older people in the city, and has developed a cultural champions network of over 100 older people to enable their participation.

While the issue of producing evidence of the impact is complex and much debated, researchers and practitioners have focussed energies on collecting information that gives a convincing picture of the relationship between good quality arts and cultural activity and outcomes for older people, in terms of quality of life, better health and wellbeing:

  • Arts Council England’s evidence review, The Value of Arts and Culture to People and Society, notes some of the research on impact of the arts on physical, mental and social wellbeing of older people.
  • The Mental Health Foundation’s Evidence Review of the Impact of Participatory Arts on Older People notes the positive physical benefits from arts engagement for the 60 to 69 age group, as well as links between involvement in community arts and mental wellbeing.
  • The role of arts in social care, published by Skills for Care & Development and Creative & Cultural Skills, finds considerable physical and psychological benefits of using arts with people in receipt of social care, including enabling social interaction and pursuit of creative interests.

Here are just a few examples of those responsible for planning and commissioning adult care working with arts organisations to deliver engagement, quality and innovation.

Green Candle Dance Company is commissioned by both a local authority and a clinical commissioning group (CCG) to work with older people. Tower Hamlets Council commissions a programme of dance at Green Candle’s base in Bethnal Green. ‘Remember to Dance’ is a weekly session for people with recently diagnosed dementia and their carers and companions, and Green Candle Senior Dancers is a group for the over sixties, where weekly sessions lead to creation and performance of new work. Tower Hamlets CCG has commissioned two pilot projects: ‘Older Men Moving’ for three men’s groups in the borough and ‘Your Move’ for two groups, one for older people at risk of falling and one for men with varying long-term conditions. Engaging men mostly over the age of 50, including those from local Bangladeshi and Somali communities, these groups contribute to the CCG’s programme for self-management of long-term conditions.

Meet Me at the Albany is a creative arts club for the over sixties, co-produced by Entelechy Arts and the Albany in Deptford, with the aim of helping isolated, older people to create and experience great art. It is inspired by diverse experiences including Brazil’s Pontos de Cultura programme, the Prospect Hill Seniors Choir in Brooklyn, the work of ARTZ with MOMA in New York and memories of past homemade communal entertainment in south London. The programme is supported by Lewisham Council’s community directorate. By asking what could be possible if the isolated old were to attend their local arts centre instead of a day centre, it adopts a new approach to daycare, one which is based on creatively supporting people to become recognised and valued players within their own communities. Lewisham Council has confirmed its continued investment in the programme until March 2018. It responds to the needs of isolated older people, their families and carers, becomes part of the fabric of everyday health and adult social care provision, and enables older people to feel valued and recognised through the medium of arts and creativity.

Launched in May and led by Live Music Now, A Choir in Every Care Home is an ambitious new initiative to explore how singing can feature regularly in care homes across the country. It is a unique collaboration between 30 leading national organisations from the worlds of adult social care, music and healthcare research. One of the partners is Care England, the largest representative body for care providers, which sends out a message that change is underway.

So here we have a picture of growing and recognised need among older people to maintain quality of life and independence, and of ways of responding to this which are rich and rewarding and which facilitate self-management, social connectivity and independence. Service providers and commissioners are also alert and responsive to opportunities to innovate and improve. The evidence base may not be complete, but then how complete is it for many other approaches? What is known by policy-makers in the fields of health and social care is that not acting in a timely way can be costly – in more ways than one.

Jessica Harris is Cultural Commissioning Programme Manager at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations.

The Cultural Commissioning Programme is a three-year Arts Council England funded programme which supports the arts and cultural sector to engage with public service commissioning, and also works with commissioners to raise their awareness and understanding of how the arts and cultural sector can help deliver their outcomes. It is delivered by a partnership of National Council for Voluntary Organisations (lead partner), NPC and nef.

This article, sponsored and contributed by the Cultural Commissioning Programme, is in a series exploring opportunities for arts organisations, museums and library services to engage in public service commissioning.

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Photo of Jessica Harris