British Council

The ongoing pandemic has highlighted the issue of social isolation among older people in many countries around the world. Social isolation has had a significant impact on the physical and mental health of those affected, their families, and caregivers. Arts and cultural organisations in the UK have been delivering various pioneering initiatives to address these issues and to reconnect older people with society.

In March 2021, the British Council organised an online forum titled 'Connecting with isolated older people through arts – looking beyond the era of COVID-19', where case studies and challenges that face the British arts and cultural organisations delivering such programmes were shared with counterparts in Japan. As a follow-up to this first forum, the British Council hosted the online forum 'Arts and older people – looking beyond the era of COVID-19’ in March 2022. 

Six speakers from Japan and the UK spoke about the progress of ‘creative ageing’, a term often used in the UK to refer to creative activities for older people, since the start of the pandemic, and shared case studies from their organisations. The forum also included a panel discussion to share thoughts on how activities will develop post-pandemic.

Keynote: Overview of Creative Ageing in England

In her keynote address, Virginia Tandy, Director of the Manchester-based Creative Ageing Development Agency (CADA), described the current state of ageing in the UK and presented a case study of creative ageing initiatives by UK arts institutions during the pandemic.

The UK will see an ever-increasing proportion of older people in the population over the next decade, creating an urgent need to extend the healthy life expectancy of the population. In this situation, Tandy believes the arts "should play a very important role alongside housing, transport, care welfare and digital literacy".

Having social interaction and purpose is important for older people to maintain their wellbeing, but there are not many creative activities in which older people can participate. Tandy called for “creative ageing to be included in the initiatives of all cultural institutions”.

Further examples of creative ageing initiatives include the ‘Theatre of Wandering’, a remote production through a collaboration between Japanese and British arts organisations working with older people facing challenges due to the pandemic. She also spoke about ‘Wit and Wisdom’ by the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre, which combined Zoom and face-to-face activities with both older and younger people, as well as an initiative by Leeds Playhouse. These examples show how digital communication has opened up opportunities for new initiatives, even during the pandemic. 

Tandy also mentioned the challenge of the lack of digital infrastructure in places including care homes. “When we talk about valuing diversity, we tend to focus only on race and gender issues, but we must not forget about older people." She believes that going forward, we need age-friendly creative activities as well as efforts to increase digital literacy that support older people to connect with both people and services.

Leeds Playhouse case study: a remote programme to save older people from isolation

Nicky Taylor, Theatre and Dementia Research Associate at Leeds Playhouse, introduced ‘Playhouse Connect’, a remote programme initiated during the pandemic.

Leeds Playhouse is an arts organisation that, in addition to presenting high-quality theatre productions, has been active in implementing creative initiatives aimed at diverse local communities, both young and old. One of their programmes aimed at older people, Heydays, offers drama, dance and other expressive activities. Another programme ‘Our Time’, provides a space for people living with dementia to express and explore their creativity.

Taylor said that because they had already built relationships with participants and had experience in adapting how they engage with them to each of their individual circumstances, “our role in the pandemic was to continue to support them as best we could”.

This is why the Playhouse launched ‘Playhouse Connect’, a programme run entirely online that gained the participation of over 13,000 older people. It was not easy at the beginning, with staff and volunteers making hundreds of calls each week to show older people, including those living with dementia, how to use Zoom.

Taylor mentioned that “people who were isolated and anxious seemed relieved to see their friends on Zoom”. Some participants mentioned feeling motivated, now having a reason to wash their hair. The Playhouse started with short sessions to ease the stress of unfamiliar digital communication. Gradually, they increased the length of the sessions. For those who did not feel comfortable participating in online groups, they offered other solutions like one-on-one sessions, adjusting the programme depending on their needs.

She added that the Christmas show, which attracted 2,000 attendees, highlighted a number of challenges. Some care homes were unable to access the Zoom link, while others had to bring their devices into hospitals and facilities where they could not watch the show on the television monitors provided.

Post-pandemic, many people will once again be able to enjoy being out an about, but there will be people who cannot go outside. Taylor emphasised that “we must continue to have virtual communities so that people who cannot leave their homes have the opportunity to connect with others”. She closed her presentation by reiterating the importance of providing creative activities for older people, saying they are an effective way to engage with and maintain the social connections ofz people living with dementia.

Scottish Ballet case study: a dance programme for older people

Catherine Cassidy, Director of Engagement of Scottish Ballet, introduced ‘Time to Dance’, a programme for people living with dementia, and how it was delivered during the pandemic. 

Shortly after the UK lockdowns began, Scottish Ballet started an online health programme for people living with dementia and older people living in care homes.

In 2021, they took ‘Time to Dance’ to China, sharing the methodology used in their programme with Chinese dancers. They delivered this initiative together with the British Council in collaboration with a local arts organisation      ‘Body On and On’. The original plan was to travel to China and teach the programme directly to local dancers, but the pandemic forced them to take their plans entirely online.

Dancers who received the online training commented that they “found it important to lead creative activities and encourage independence in older people”, and that “connecting music and movement stimulates neural activity in different regions of the brain”.

Cassidy noted, "Creativity allows for better self-expression. Having an identity is important for wellbeing.” On the theme of connection, she also shared ‘Haud Close’, a video project that she worked on alongside people living with multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease and dementia who were left isolated during the pandemic.

Manchester Camerata case study: the benefits of music for people living with dementia

Lizzie Hoskin, Head of Community at Manchester Camerata, a British chamber orchestra, spoke about their programmes for people living with dementia and their carers during the pandemic.

Manchester Camerata uses music to improve the quality of life for people of all ages, from young children to older adults. Their programmes allow everyone, including people living with dementia, to participate in music creation. She believes this helps them to feel valued. 

Hoskin presented a video about ‘Music in Mind’, a music programme for people living with dementia. It began 10 years ago and has so far involved 6,500 people living with dementia. Professional musicians and music therapists run music sessions with the participants.

Hoskin explained that “in ‘Music in Mind’, we don't perform and make people listen”. During the sessions, around 15 older people and carers form a circle and interact with each other using a variety of instruments. By facilitating creative activities, people living with dementia can express themselves and communicate through music.

During the pandemic, Manchester Camerata created a remote version of Music in Mind. As the virus spread, visits to care homes became more difficult, so they provided training to the staff of care homes enabling them to continue having sessions with their residents.

As well as teaching practical methods, the training included weekly online group sessions and one-on-one online classes, where participants could ask the musicians directly for guidance on any concerns and technical issues.

‘Music in Mind’ also teaches caregivers how they can use music in their daily routines to connect with their residents. “For example, if a resident is a fan of Irish music, then they can use that music to connect with them. You don't need any experience or knowledge of music to use it as a means of communication," said Hoskin.

One of the benefits of music-based programmes is increased social interaction. In some cases, music has also increased mobility, enabling people to stand up and handle musical instruments, and has reduced medication use.

One caregiver was amazed at how learning the 'Music in Mind' technique helped calm residents who were easily distracted in the evenings. The use of music is now a part of daily life at the care home. 

Hoskin added the online programme, which was born in response to the pandemic, has enabled the musicians of the Manchester Camerata to bring their skills to a larger number of people. Now that the remote version of ‘Music in Mind’ has reached musicians overseas, including Taiwan, she sees the programme’s potential to spread globally.

Saitama Arts Theatre case study: a performing arts programme for older people

Sachiko Ukegawa, Associate Director of the Saitama Arts Theatre’s production department, introduced their performing arts programme for older people and their current situation amidst the pandemic. 

The theatre started its range of programmes for older people with the launch of the Saitama Gold Theatre programme. The initiative was led by Yukio Ninagawa, who was appointed as Artistic Director in 2006. 

Ukegawa quoted what Ninagawa said at the launch of the project: "Ageing is a sign that you have lived through many different experiences. Even as we age, we can find a new part of ourselves again through physical expression. It is with this in mind that we have created a theatre company of older people.” These words have been the driving force behind the company ever since. 

With Japan’s ageing population, the Saitama Gold Theatre has attracted a lot of attention. The ageing of the company members itself has led to a variety of issues, such as illnesses, injuries and difficulty caring for family members. There have also been challenges related to memory loss that affect memorising lines and reduced mobility that affects performing on stage. Staff members say they have had to face each and every one of these challenges by trial and error.

Due to Covid-19, rehearsals and performances had to be suspended for the two years leading up to the final performance in December last year. When they resumed, in addition to the difficulties they faced bringing together older people at high risk from the virus, Ukegawa remembers sensing the significant physical and mental impact felt by the members, whose average age is over 80, during the period of being confined to their homes.

Other projects have derived from the Saitama Gold Theatre. In 2016, Saitama Arts Theatre organised the ‘Gold Theatre for 10,000 People’. The name implies the wish for many people to participate. It brought together 1,600 older people to participate in a production based on 'Romeo and Juliet'. To encourage participants to continue their creative expressions, they also launched a programme for older people called the Gold Arts Club, modelled on Leeds Playhouse's Heydays programme.

Saitama Arts Theatre also co-produced ‘The Home’, an immersive theatre piece about the experience of living in a care home, with UK theatre director Christopher Green. Due to the pandemic, it was produced online. It allows visitors (the audience) to relive the story of life in a care home and ageing through short films and game-like content in 'The Home', a fictional retirement home set up on the website. The project has proved successful. 

‘The Home’ has attracted more than 19,000 views from 35 countries around the world. Through this, Ukegawa has felt the strength of digital technology. She also realised that film, a media which she had never worked with before, was a great means of expression for older members.

She concluded: “older people should not have to exist in isolation. In the future, we would like to build small communities made up of multiple generations, including older people.” 

Panel discussion: possibilities for older people and the future of art and care

The presentation of case studies was followed by a panel discussion, moderated by Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto, Director of the Centre for Arts and Culture at NLI Research Institute. 

In the first half of the discussion, the panel we each asked a question. Hoskin of Manchester Camerata was asked about the impacts of their projects  on people living with dementia. She shared a story of a couple where the husband has severe dementia. Through the sessions and the music, the husband reconnected with his surroundings and even invited his wife to go out on the dance floor. Hoskin highlighted the power that music can have on people living with dementia.

Taylor of Leeds Playhouse answered a question about ‘Maggie May’, a play created with people living with dementia, and the 'expressive capacity of people with dementia'. Taylor explained that the play was created collaboratively with people living with dementia, where they exchanged ideas over the span of two and a half years. She added that the work showcases their talent, and that she had learnt from people living with dementia not only about creativity, but also about compassion and support.

In the second half of the session, the panel discussed whether the pandemic has acted to stimulate discourse around linking art and care more closely. 

Hoskin responded with a positive view, stating that she is in the process of developing an app for carers and is collecting research data in an attempt to determine the effectiveness of music-based programmes. She hopes to show that music is a necessity in care homes.

On the other hand, Ukegawa said  there is a stereotype that art can only be created in-person, and believes that progression has been a little stifled in Japan. Cassidy added that Scottish Ballet has decided to bring in healthcare experts, and feels that having experts communicate the benefits of such programmes would be a major step forward.

In closing, Yoshimoto said, "We cannot stop the progression of dementia. It is important to accept this and through cultural engagements together work to improve the wellbeing of older people and people living with dementia.” He concluded the forum saying the discussions had reinforced his belief that art and culture or artists and cultural institutions have the power to do this.

Speaker Profile

Catherine Cassidy (Director of Engagement, Scottish Ballet)
Catherine Cassidy has over 20 years’ professional experience of using dance in a wide range of community settings, including health, education and reformation. In her 10 years as Director of Engagement at Scottish Ballet, Catherine led the company to become specialists in dance health. SB Health includes three projects for people living with neurological conditions, including Dance for Parkinson’s Scotland, dementia-friendly Time to Dance and Elevate for people living with multiple sclerosis. Other projects include dance projects exploring themes such as identity, diversity and LGBTQ, aiming to improve the wellbeing of young people. Catherine graduated from the University of Birmingham in 1998 and has worked both nationally and internationally as a choreographer, dance artist and producer. Catherine has undertaken the role of Specialist Advisor for organisations such as Arts Council England and Creative Scotland.

Lizzie Hoskin (Head of Community, Manchester Camerata)
Lizzie Hoskin started her role as Head of Community for Manchester Camerata in January 2020, having previously been a radio producer for national BBC daytime programmes for over 15 years. Since March 2020 and the pandemic, Lizzie has been working from home in Manchester but has been enjoying developing and producing online content for schools, older people and carers for people living with dementia. As Manchester Camerata is a registered Charity, Lizzie is in charge of fundraising to ensure the continuation of their work. In her spare time, she is also a volunteer producer of Music for Dementia, a UK-wide radio station aimed at people living with dementia.

Virginia Tandy (Director, Creative Ageing Development Agency)
Virginia Tandy OBE is the director of CADA, the new Creative Ageing Development Agency. The former Director of Manchester City Galleries (1998-2008) and Director of Culture for Manchester City Council (2008-2011), she was President of the Museums Association (2006-2008) and a trustee of the Heritage Lottery Fund (2009-2015). A board member of National Museums Liverpool and the Granada Foundation, she currently chairs Brighter Sound, a NW creative music charity and is a member of the Fabric Committee for St Paul’s Cathedral.  

Nicky Taylor (Theatre and Dementia Research Associate, Leeds Playhouse) 
Nicky is a specialist in theatre and dementia, leading ground-breaking creative ageing practice at Leeds Playhouse since 2005. She created the world’s first specifically adapted dementia friendly theatre performance, and subsequently authored a best-practice guide to staging dementia friendly productions, adopted industry-wide. She initiated and directed Every Third Minute, a pioneering theatre festival curated by people living with dementia, including plays co-authored by people with dementia and professional writing partners. She supports the theatre industry, nationally and internationally, to involve and value people with dementia as creative equals. Her study of creative co-production processes with people with dementia formed the basis of her PhD at Leeds Beckett University’s Centre for Dementia Research, where she is a Research Fellow. She is a Senior Atlantic Fellow at the Global Brain Health Institute (Trinity College Dublin/ University of California San Francisco) and a Churchill Fellow. She has worked alongside older people in care, health, community and arts settings for over 25 years.

Sachiko Ukegawa (Associate Director, Production Department, Saitama Arts Theatre)
Sachiko Ukegawa completed dance studies (MA) at University of Surrey, UK & anthropology in dance (MA) at University of Tokyo. After joining the Saitama Arts Theatre in 2004, she had been involved mainly in dance productions of the theatre. Her commitment to dance ranges across varies levels of artistic engagement, from international productions working with the world’s leading choreographers to collaborations with local community. Since 2016, she has lead the arts programmes for older people at the theatre and showcased international practices with older people in the area of performing arts at “World Gold Theatre” in 2018 as a Programme Director.  She is currently assisting the new Artistic Director of the theatre, who will take up his new post in April this year, in planning the programme under the new structure.

Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto (Director, Centre for Arts and Culture at NLI Research Institute)
Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto began his career as an architect in 1981 and he became a consultant and researcher in cultural fields in 1985. Since then, he has been engaged in international studies on cultural policy, research on creative city development, survey on Cultural Olympiad, master planning of cultural institutions, and consultation for public art projects. These latter include Tokyo Opera City, National Art Centre Tokyo and Tokyo International Forum, which rank among the top cultural developments over a couple of past decades in Japan. Currently, he is the Director of Association for Corporate Support for the Arts and a lecturer at Tokyo University of the Arts. He has served as a member of Council for Cultural Affairs, Tokyo Arts and Cultural Committee, Tokyo 2020 Culture and Education Committee, Trustee of International House, Council Board Member of Arts Council Tokyo and many others.

‘Playhouse Connect’, a remote programme by the Leeds Playhouse ©

Leeds Playhouse

‘Music in Mind’ by the Manchester Camerata ©

Duncan Elliott

See also

External links