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How imagination might improve quality of life for older people with dementia

By Newcastle University
paintbrushes, covered with paint, stand against a blue background

When it comes to ensuring that older people live longer, healthier, happier lives, Newcastle University's work has asked if art could improve life for people with dementia and their carers.

The project - as part of a wider national body of work - asked if creative activities can improve the quality of life for people with dementia and their carers, and explored how this can be achieved in different care settings.

“We need to know more about the potential contribution of involvement in the arts for people with dementia – and some 80% of care home residents have dementia. This project is, therefore, extremely timely. It crosses the traditional boundaries to provide a fresh perspective on wellbeing, quality of life and the value of art interventions.”

Des Kelly OBE, Executive Director - National Care Forum

The project also examined whether creative activities could help people with dementia stay connected to their communities and if this could help their communities become more dementia-friendly. It even investigated the possibility that such improvements may provide financial benefits for the UK.

Dementia: one of the most important health issues in the world

Dementia is a growing challenge. As the population ages and people live for longer, it has become one of the most important health and care issues facing the world.

Dementia mainly affects older people, and after the age of 65, the likelihood of developing dementia roughly doubles every five years. However, for some dementia can develop earlier, presenting different issues for the person affected, their carer and their family.*

Tackling dementia is a priority for the NHS. That includes helping people and their carers live well with dementia after diagnosis.

“This project will help us see what difference art might make in the lives of people with dementia, their carers and their communities. I wonder if this approach may help reduce the stigma still faced by people with dementia and their carers?”

Professor Alistair Burns, National Clinical Director for Dementia in England

In recent years, there has been a surge in interest in the positive effects arts engagement can have for people with dementia and the communities around them. Research is needed to help raise awareness and understanding about dementia and to enable people to ‘live well’ in dementia supportive communities.

The study

Jointly funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council under the Connected Communities Programme, the study asked participants to attend a series of 12 weekly arts activities.

These activities took place in three parts of the UK and engaged with participants living in three different types of environment. Participants in the North East of England lived in care homes, participants in Derbyshire were in hospital settings, and participants in North Wales lived at home and travelled to local cultural venues to take part.

The study utilised three approaches to art for people with dementia:

  • Observing and discussing artwork
  • Creating artwork
  • Observing and discussing art, then creating artwork

These approaches all focused on enjoyment, pleasure, freedom of expression, creativity, making social connections, and practice in ‘being in the moment’.


A collaborative exploration

A major strength of the study was that the research crosses traditional boundaries and draws on expertise from the arts, humanities, health and social sciences.

It looked at how participation in community arts interventions could increase wellbeing and connectedness between the dementia community and wider society. It also examined the underlying processes that created the connection between arts participation and positive outcomes.

The project team were from diverse disciplinary backgrounds and used a mixed methods approach. Impact was considered in terms of positive wellbeing, quality of life, and social connectivity. There was also a strand of public engagement activity throughout the project.

The findings

The Newcastle University research team focused on the qualitative data. The sessions were designed to be forward-looking, but participants drew on personal and shared historical narratives to engage in the activities.

The results suggested that the activities:

  • Supported the resilience of the participants
  • Allowed them to express a narrative identity
  • Supported (embodied) communication between participants and carers
  • Had an impact on carers. This could influence how the carers responded to the person with dementia in the future

Study findings also suggested that both observing and creating art often reports benefits, such as improved quality of life.

“Art can make a difference for people with dementia - like a call to the brain, a connection, helping people come alive again. How does it do this? And are there wider economic, social and community implications? At a time when all parties agree dementia is a priority this project is looking for answers to some important questions.”

Baroness Sally Greengross, Chair, All Party Parliamentary Group on Dementia

Next steps

The project was part of a wider national project exploring how art can improve wellbeing for people with dementia and their carers.

A wider Dementia and Imagination research team next aims to further address some of the gaps in the evidence. In particular, consolidating study approaches across the three residence settings, exploring the wider impact for communities where people with dementia live, and assessing the financial implications of art interventions.

The study also aims to create artwork which challenges the stigma of dementia and showcases the imaginative abilities of those with the condition.

Keen to find out more about our ground-breaking work which helps older people live longer, happier, healthier lives? Explore our work in ageing, or sign up to our Research Insights Newsletter to be the first to hear about our latest research:


*NHS England: https://www.england.nhs.uk/mental-health/dementia/




Tags: Wellbeing, Research Excellence, Ageing and Health, Sustainable Development