Moving In

In 2017, artists Kate Sweeney and Claire Ford moved their respective studios and created a new studio space in Northbourne residential care home in Gateshead. Over a 5-week period they lived, explored, reacted and responded creatively to residents, families and care staff’s creative needs, stories and thoughts.

Alongside developing their individual practices, they created new work, aiming to capture the ‘real world’ of a care home. As artists, they had previously been limited to time-based slots in care homes; the main aim for this project was to immerse themselves into the setting, removing any time-based restrictions or limitations, working day and/or night.  

The residency was a collaborative project between Anchor’s, Northbourne care home and the Artists. A lot of preliminary meetings took place beforehand to discuss the aims, objectives of what the project may look like and how we were to ‘fit’ into the care environment to be as less threatening as possible. We wanted to become part of the furniture. The care home offered us our own bedrooms, a bathroom, a kitchen and communal annexe area, which we could use as a studio. This part of the care home had been closed due to ‘not been fit for purpose’ — not having en-suite bathrooms and therefore wasn’t currently in use. It was a perfect opportunity and space for us to use. Management were on board and the project was cascaded down to staff, ready for us to begin.  

Central to the residency was an ongoing open studio, in which Kate and Claire were based. It had an open door policy so residents, families and care staff could come in and create at any time. The intention was to work with 32 residents over the month period, responding to their personal needs and abilities. This was the full capacity of the care home.  

Bringing the Outdoors In. Image: Kate Sweeney and Claire Ford

Two other strands that we wanted to focus on were: 

  1. Producing Art Work and developing our individual practices around ‘Capturing the real world of a care home’ in the aim to alter perceptions of what it was like on a day-to-day basis, shifting it from a negative to a positive paradigm.  
  2. Training and Mentoring other Artists and Care Staff in Northbourne Residential Care Home. As part of the residency, we collaborated with Equal Arts to train other artists in ‘Arts and Dementia’ based sessions. We also hoped to mentor and train Care Staff to develop their creative skills. 

What we hoped to achieve:  

  • To understand the effects of living in a care home and been able to reflect on these feelings as an artist
  •  To create strong relationships with the staff and families to integrate this way of working and to promote sustainability
  •  To change perceptions of Dementia and what is actually happening inside care home environments
  • To provide an ongoing creative output for residents over a month period and to see the differences from beginning to end  

The residency started with a week of ‘getting to know’ everyone in the care environment. We developed a range of methods that gently connected everyone. From posting notes under doors, hanging flowers on door handles, putting up posters and simply been part of the day-to-day running by eating and taking part in daily activities and routines. It was time to get to know the residents one-on-one too and to begin thinking about how the future weeks would look. We felt this was essential to break down any barriers or worries before facilitating anything ourselves.  

The coming weeks saw individual and group projects naturally develop from the initial conversations that we had with residents and staff, during week one. We also had visiting Artists come in too to bounce off and collaborate with. These Artists included Richard Bliss, Phyllis Christopher and Gemma Seltzer. 

Examples of some of the projects include: 

  • Creating a sound mural for Flo — a resident who loved to talk about her days working in the cotton mills. This was in collaboration with Flo and her family and we worked with her to stitch in electric thread to weave in her stories and favourite pieces of music. This piece was then hung in her room so she could touch and listen whenever she wanted.  
  • A ‘Skype’ walk back to a house where a resident was evacuated to during the war. One Artist stayed with Joan and the other went back to speak to the family who took Joan in.  
  • Yarn bombing the high street near to where the Care Home is situated with knitted envelopes. Inside were fingerprint postcards addressed to all the residents in the care home in the hope that this would start a community conversation. It did — and we had to take down the knitting after three days!  
  • Working with care staff to understand how they use their hands to comfort, assist, undertake daily tasks and be there for their residents through hand casting and movement.  

And many other projects. If you would like to read about these in greater depth you can go visit the Moving into care blog.

General public engaging in The Yarn Bombing of Low Fell. Image: Kate Sweeney and Claire Ford

What did we achieve?

  • We organised and delivered a training event for other care staff in the area organised by the Tyne and Wear Care Alliance. Around 30 care staff attended in which we shared ideas around practice, roles and materials.  
  • We created an online voice through a blog to share our thoughts, opinions and ideas throughout the residency. We have had 4,499 hits so far with readers regularly contacting us with great interest in the project. We hope to develop this over time. Our blog address is  
  • We promoted and empowered the care staff at Northbourne through the Arts, showing society the amazing job that they do.  
  • We created an exciting, new and curious approach to the care home and were able to see the results on everyone at Northbourne Care Home from beginning to end, transforming moral and the annexe unused space.  
  • We now have a better understanding of the effects of living in a care home and have been able to reflect on these emotionally as an artist. The project has inspired many other ideas and thoughts which we would like to take further into the future.  
  • Most importantly, we have been able to connect the Art world with the Health world that is ‘Anchor’. The managers and marketing team from head office had never visited Northbourne care home before but the final exhibition of work filled them with excitement. This enabled them to see the importance of the arts and how they can transform spaces. One of our initial aims was to look at the growing need of Artists in care homes and how we create more opportunities going forward. This is the first step to making this change which we hope in time will provide funding and promote sustainability for Artists in care homes.  

What we learnt from Moving In

  • Time to develop deeper, meaningful relationships with residents and staff members. This has enriched our practices and inspired really exciting outcomes and time for us to explore our own ideas that we have had working in care homes for a long time.  
  • It built the collaborative practices between Kate Sweeney and Claire Ford, understanding where their strengths and weaknesses lie to best support one another.  
  • We gained invaluable experience in establishing and developing deep and sustainable inter-personal skills with different groups of people invested in the project such as care staff, family members and the wider community. 
Character Expression. Image: Phyllis Christopher

Longer-term impact from the Moving In project: 

  • One of the projects that took place during the residency was The Yarn Bombing of Low Fell.  Local community members wrote to various residents and this has now resulted in the local community getting involved at Northbourne. Community involvement has increased and put Northbourne on the map with regular events taking place.  
  • The Moving In Residency took place in the annexe of Northbourne Care Home, an unused space that was closed down a few years ago due to it not meeting regulations for en suite bathrooms. Over the 5 weeks that the residency took place the annexe was developed into a studio space-changing daily with creative outcomes and artworks. Over time staff, residents and family members came to see us and began using the space. The Moving In exhibition transformed the space into a professional arts space in which Anchor directors saw its full potential. Since then, Anchor committed to transforming the space with funding to open ‘The Hub’. The annexe at Northbourne is now a community space with a hairdresser, a men’s shed, a kitchen for residents to use, an art studio and a cinema room. A real transformation that brings great energy to the space.  
  • Since Moving In, Anchor have altered how their Activity Coordinators work, believing that all Care Staff should be responsible for activities too. The development of ‘The Hub’ sees all staff working closely with their residents now to understand their well-being needs as well as their health needs. More activity is taking place than before.  
  • We have written and reflected upon our time at Northbourne in conversation with other arts and academic parties, sharing our learning to develop this line of work going forward.  

Lessons Learnt

  • After the 5 week-long residency we became really attached and felt we couldn’t leave. In hindsight, an exit strategy should have been put in place. Instead, we volunteered our time up to December 2017, visiting and facilitating sessions on a weekly basis. The exhibition in December 2017 was our final celebration and session and we simply visited residents after this time.  

Claire Ford
Visit the Moving into Care blog