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Arts for an ageing population

Engagement with the arts can have a powerful impact on the general health and psychological wellbeing of older people, including those living with dementia. Northumbria University’s pioneering research into creative engagement with those aged 50 and over is making a significant contribution to dementia initiatives, workforce development and social capital.


Living longer is a cause for celebration, but it can be a struggle for those who are prone to falls or are living with progressive disease such as dementia. Older people often live alone and may feel lonely or socially isolated and this can have a detrimental effect on their wellbeing. Researchers at Northumbria University have been utilising arts and creative engagement to address these challenges. This work is becoming ever more crucial as the UK population continues to age – in 2017 one in five were aged 65 or over, but this is expected to rise to one in four by 2037.


Associate Professor of Ageing and Well Being, Dr Catherine Bailey, colleagues and partners, have produced an outstanding body of work that demonstrates how arts participation and engagement can facilitate older people to develop the support and services they need for a healthier and happier life. The research primarily focuses on developing theatre and film productions with older people as a way of sharing and identifying self-reported challenges and older people driven solutions.


 Dr Bailey has undertaken qualitative evaluations of participatory arts projects, including the first delivery of the very successful, Helix Arts led, falls and dance ‘Falling on your Feet’ programme (  Working collaboratively with Elders Council, Newcastle upon Tyne and Skimstone Arts, Growing Older in my Home and  Neighbourhood’, a consultation and arts residency with older people about what supports us to age well in our homes and communities, led to a co-produced theatre production, ‘Doorbells’, an iteration of which toured the 2015, Edinburgh Fringe Festival.   In 2018, a further iteration, ‘Doorbells Dreaming for the Future’,  was commissioned by Care & Repair England, with Esmée Fairbairn Foundation funding, this as part of a national conversation on housing in later life and  peer led, housing support (  A freely available film on location was produced (, with an accessible ‘post-card’ resource pack to stimulate a shared, national and potentially international conversation.


One NHS funded study, with Professor Charlotte Clarke, Edinburgh University, looked at the issues of risk and resilience from the standpoint of those living with dementia. With Skimstone Arts, a nationally acclaimed, fictionalised theatre production and its three iterations, Jack and Jill and the Red Post-box explored how dementia affects identity, roles within the community and impacts the family. This study influenced regional and national policy, having been cited in significant reports, including the Alzheimer Society’s ‘Building Dementia-Friendly Communities: A Priority for Everyone’ and the North East Dementia Alliance report, ‘Dementia: A North East Perspective’. The study, along with the Jack and Jill and the Red Post-box productions and a freely available film on location, also supported the development of dementia strategies for Durham County Council and Newcastle City Council, in addition to dementia friendly communities such as Jesmond. Such initiatives ensure that people living with dementia are better understood, respected, supported, valued and continue to contribute to their community.


Dr Bailey’s work has impacted on cross sector workforce development, resulting in better awareness of and improved attitudes to, the challenges and opportunities of ageing. This includes raising  dementia awareness among North Tyneside Council, Housing Officers and since 2014, Dementia Friends is embedded into the curriculum for all fields of Northumbria University nursing students, with most students (some 2000+), along with a number of North Tyneside Housing Officers,  becoming Dementia Friends and some becoming  dementia champions. These volunteers provide their community with information about dementia, demonstrating how raised community awareness and understanding of the condition can make a positive difference to those living with dementia.


This valuable body of research has had a demonstrable influence on regional and national policy, dementia strategies, public debate, individual capacity, social capital and workforce developments, as well as arts curricula, forums and competitions.

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