Dementia-friendly sessions at The Hepworth Wakefield

This case study explores The Hepworth Wakefield’s approach to developing a dementia-friendly gallery through creative artist-led enquiry in partnership with local community experts.

The Hepworth Wakefield (THW) Community Programme aims to provide access to creative opportunities that support healthier and more connected people and communities, and in doing so diversify and expand our audiences so they reflect the full demographic of Wakefield.

Through conversations and research with our local communities, we identified the potential benefits to mental and physical wellbeing which the gallery could achieve for those living with dementia and their carers. To better position THW as a resource for this community we became members of the Wakefield Dementia Action Alliance, led by Alzheimer’s Society with the intention of sharing and collaborating to find new ways to remove barriers and together work towards establishing a dementia-friendly Wakefield.

Participants take part in a movement and teamwork activity at an outreach session. Photo: Nick Singleton

After obtaining funding from the People’s Postcode Lottery Community Trust to develop this work further, we set out to meaningfully collaborate with partners delivering dementia provision. This included local charities such as Carers Wakefield, Local Authority Libraries and the Alzheimer’s Society (AS). The AS identify social isolation, frailty and malnutrition as the key areas of risk for those living with dementia. This then shaped the development of our project as we worked to establish on-site provision for this audience.

A creative enquiry

We knew it would be essential to build a foundation of shared knowledge in the organisation to truly start to remove barriers. We embarked on our partnership with the AS with respect for each other’s experience and created space to exchange knowledge and expertise. We built in time to bring our partners together with the artists leading on the project, to share tried and tested approaches and further understand the needs of the participants. We also commissioned dementia-friendly training from Alzheimer’s Society for front of house, cafe and learning teams, to give them confidence in welcoming people living with dementia and a sense of ownership of the project as it developed.

Drop-in session activities. Photo: Kim Glassby

The main body of the project took the form of a Creative Enquiry, working with project artists to test, observe, reflect and respond to participants. Together, the two artists and the learning team created activities that aimed to spark personal connections through encounters with art objects. We devised methods that were mindful and focused on the present moment, rather than reminiscence and memory, including sensory boxes, storytelling, games, singing and movement activities, all exploring themes from THW’s collection.

In the first stage of the project the artist team reached out to existing dementia provision across the district, visiting libraries and cafes to introduce and test our playful activities. After each session we reflected and redesigned before the next, involving AS volunteers and carers to build our knowledge and creative toolkit.

Following the offsite work we invited carers to attend sessions designed for them at the gallery, to start to consider what resources and changes we might need to make to unlock the space for them and their cared for to enjoy. We had identified carers as a group who would benefit from focused ‘me time’, however at this point in the project it emerged that it was almost impossible for most carers to take that kind of time away from their cared for. We needed to quickly rethink and adapt the sessions to engage those living with dementia while maintaining a focus on the wellbeing of the carers. The artists facilitated relaxed activities with broad appeal that provided space for conversation and reflection, using words, sound and sculpture-making in response to collection objects. They introduced ways to look at and talk about art, and to simply ‘be’ in the gallery. One multisensory activity involved listening to a piece of music on headphones in the gallery and taking time to explore the artworks before choosing one work that they thought connected with the song. This was followed by time to share their thoughts with others. We observed people dancing and moving to the music in the gallery, and one participant who clearly relished the opportunity to consider something from her perspective, as a carer always having to make decisions in someone else’s best interest.

Multi-sensory boxes inspired by THW Collection. Photo: Bryony Pritchard

The project culminated in a celebration event inviting participants from across the project to share, make and imagine with each other. The event allowed us to test out how ongoing onsite provision at the gallery might look for people living with dementia and their families and carers. There was plenty of time for conversation over tea and cake, singing and movement activities and a carousel of activities to do in small groups, including testing out new games designed by the project artists.

What we found

We found the encounters facilitated by artists in response to the collection connected participants with different parts of themselves and others. We kept the ‘5 ways to wellbeing’ in mind as we observed participants looking for moments of connection, taking notice, being active, learning and contributing in the workshops.

A wide range of multisensory, open-ended activities meant that there was opportunity for everyone to engage in a personal way. We observed non-verbal participants smile and stick their tongues out in concentration, while also hearing from carers

This is for me too… I’ve had a lovely time.

Drop-in session activity exploring place, travel and mapmaking.Photo: Kim Glassby

For carers that very rarely take time out for themselves the workshops provided an opportunity to turn their attention to their own thoughts and creativity, while also seeing their cared for enjoy themselves. It became clear to us that some carers attended gallery workshops when they chose not to go to other dementia support activities. We believe the gallery setting offers them an alternative space and a focus away from dementia onto art and creativity.

The project partner’s staff and volunteers who took part in on- and off-site workshops left enthused and inspired to try new approaches in their own activities. They enjoyed participating in the sessions themselves and remarked when they noticed participants engaging in ways that they hadn’t seen before.

You brought the best out in [her] today! She normally doesn’t say much at all.

Finally, through our investment and commitment to the project we saw attitudes to the gallery change in everyone. The welcoming environment we nurtured, through enthusiastic and flexible facilitation and plenty of time for tea and talk, helped build positive relationships with local people who otherwise would never consider the gallery as a place for them.

What now?

Following the completion of the project THW continues to host creative workshops for those living with dementia, their carers and families as part of its core Community Programme. We have embedded our learning into shaping regular activity, while also retaining a spirit of enquiry throughout. Our regular monthly ‘dementia-friendly’ drop-in sessions are led by our project artists and supported by Alzheimer Society volunteers. More importantly, we continue to visit new provision off-site to connect with new audiences. This encourages us to keep reflecting, adapting, and developing new ideas in response to the people we meet and our community partners.

Hepworth inspired domino sets, nurture familiarity with the collection through play. Photo: Bryony Pritchard

Our monthly sessions continue to grow and to unlock gallery assets, including our new garden, alongside our collections and exhibitions. However, the current social shift caused by the pandemic places us in a completely new position, potentially unable to bring some of the most at-risk members of our communities together for a long time. At this point, we are turning back to our partners to start conversations about innovative ways to help people stay creative and happy.

Project Manager: Rachel Craddock, Communities Manager, @rachelmakes
Project Artists: Kim Glassby and Bryony Pritchard
The Hepworth Wakefield project’s website
Twitter: @HepworthGallery
Instagram: @hepworthwakefield

Read ‘How a partnership between The Hepworth Wakefield and the Alzheimer’s Society is supporting people with dementia and their carers to access art’ in The Yorkshire Post, 26 December 2019