Age Cymru’s flagship arts in care homes project, cARTrefu, has been running since 2015. The project aims to improve the range and quality of creative provisions within care homes, improving wellbeing, and leaving care home staff with the confidence and skills to practice creative sessions in their daily work with residents.
The Wales-wide project, funded by Arts Council Wales and The Baring Foundation, has now worked with more than 194 care homes, and 3,217 residents, staff and relatives across Wales making the project the largest of its kind in Europe.
The cARTrefu project, which means to reside in Welsh, has now moved into its fifth year. The project is run through Age Cymru’s Gwanwyn programme which celebrates creativity in older people. The cARTrefu project aimed to increase opportunities for residents and staff to participate in the arts and to develop and mentor artists to deliver sessions for older people in care settings. Through the residencies the project aimed to improve the range and quality of creative activities in care homes in Wales, improving wellbeing and confidence for caring staff to deliver more artistic/creative output as a legacy for each artist residency. I have been involved as an artist since 2017, at the start of phase 2. At this point, the project had already been going for two years and a further round of funding was provided to expand the group of artists, and art forms, to enable the project to continue to deepen its delivery across care homes in Wales. To date, the project has delivered creative activity across 194 care homes, employing 29 artists. During phase 1 and 2, the project delivery focussed on the residents in the care homes, and as artists, we were given an artist mentor who had worked on the previous round of funding in order to support our residencies. Each care home residency lasted roughly three months, with artists visiting the care homes for two hours per week. This was a two-week increase on the previous phase of the project, where the evaluation had found that 10 weeks was not enough to imbed the creative culture and legacy that the project was aiming for in each home.
Each care home has been a completely unique experience. My location in rural Ceredigion has meant travelling to a variety of council and private run homes of sizes varying from 16 beds to 80. Within the county, 50% of the population are Welsh-speaking, and this percentage is higher in the older population and reflected within the care home residents. Many come from agriculture backgrounds, but equally there are people in the home who only came to live in the local area through family and may not have much of a link to the local area. I have worked with groups of people within homes, and I have also worked one to one, with carers and without, at tables, from a chair in the dining room, and even from the care home bed. Primarily I’m a visual artist and undertakings have reflected a very broad variety of different creative activities varying from clay, collage, marbling and painting, writing and poetry to gardening, iPhone and go-pro filming and animations. A staple activity has been cyanotype printing with a lightbox and using personal objects belonging to residents to tell a story and create an artwork.
Each care home was approached through the central Age Cymru cARTrefu project coordinators. Artists in different areas of Wales were then matched with homes appropriate to their geographical area and skill set. The project has been thoroughly evaluated (a process which has continued through phase 2 and into phase 3). As artists, this has meant completing a reflective journal at the end of each session that we delivered, feeding back on the session by focussing on residents, staff and then our own artistic practice. This process, alongside the opportunity to work with a mentor, has been an extremely important aspect of the project to me as an artist. We were also provided dementia training at the outset. All of these elements were important in building confidence in the very unique care home settings we found ourselves in, and, from my own perspective have led to the development of a new body of work, inspiration for a huge amount more, and the assurance to be brave when approaching new homes and resident situations.
By the end of the two-year phase in 2019, the twelve artists involved (across disciplines, including theatre, dance, voice, film, visual art, textiles) had come together to produce an exhibition at The Courtyard, Hereford. I had exhibited work inspired by the project in four different exhibitions, and the project had created another showcasing opportunity — the cARTrefu Cube. The cARTrefu Cube, a 2m by 2m Polycarbonate box, has been touring around Wales over the last year showcasing the work of the artists involved in the form of installations, performances and artworks, developed with residents or as a reflection to the artists time within care homes. I recently exhibited in the Cube outside Aberystwyth Arts Centre A Place Where One Lies. The Cube continues to tour until August 2021 to a broad spectrum of venues, including galleries and health boards.
The project has now moved into a third phase, with continued support from The Baring Foundation and the Arts Council of Wales — but with a slightly different focus moving forward. Instead of directly working with residents, the artists and project team of cARTrefu are now working on developing activity plans for care homes that will develop a programme of work for them over the preceding year. The project is delivering training sessions to carers across Wales, and also to artists who would like to develop opportunities within their practice to work with older people in care homes. A lot of work is going on behind the scenes by the cARTrefu project team to get the word out to care homes across Wales to take up the offer of the training for their staff and activity plan coordination with artists. Both the workshops and the activity plans are free for the care homes.
Each home, and its approach to the plan and training is always very different, with some homes involving their managers and owners at the activity level, and others sending their care teams to improve confidence to develop their own activities moving forward — that might involve providing information on where to purchase materials, developing simple work plans for them to follow for activities, creating art trolleys and workshop boxes with ready prepared activities, using the cARTrefu project cards to stimulate engagement between residents and carers and also, something I have been building on, a database of places and other organisations and freelance creative practitioners who they can call on to come to the home and expand their creative offer.
The learning benefits across the whole project have been:
- A statistically significant improvement in wellbeing scores after attending cARTrefu sessions.
- Residents rated 86% of sessions as highly enjoyable (4 or 5 on a 5-point scale).
- Wider impact such as socialising more and regaining skills such as using a knife and fork.
- A statistically significant improvement in attitudes towards residents, especially those living with dementia.
- A statistically significant increase in confidence to lead a creative arts session in the home.
- Statistically more likely to seek out participatory or spectator cultural experiences (i.e. arts classes, visiting gallery/theatre) outside of work.
Thanks to further funding cARTrefu will continue for another two years. The third phase of cARTrefu began in September 2019, but differing from the two previous phases. We are running regular half day workshops across Wales to introduce care home staff to cARTrefu, giving practical advice and tips on how to run creative activities in care homes, building staff confidence, and using existing resources.
From my own perspective as an artist on the project over the last two and a half years, cARTrefu is fulfilling my personal and artistic goal to work with older people creatively. I find the individuals we work with hugely inspiring, I love to hear about the lives of the residents and the amazing things they have done, and the obstacles they have overcome. I love the buzz of achievement from a special moment shared, a new goal achieved and the sparkle of understanding and communication between myself and a person with dementia when the fog lifts slightly. The overall support on the project, through my mentor Michal Iwanowski and the cARTrefu project team and other artists, has enabled me to push the boundaries of my own arts practice, and I have developed confidence and courage to engage with residents in challenging care environments. Being flexible and expecting the unexpected has been key learning points.
I would also say that working with older people has changed my perspective on life; I try and be more mindful of living in the moment and enjoying the place at which I am in my life — particularly as a mother and an artist. Seeing life from the endpoint has given me a much better understanding of why so many older people (women in particular) tell me to enjoy the time with your children, as they will soon be grown and gone.
Artist, Age Cymru