Helping people to reconnect: positive projects for people with dementia

This Photo is licensed under CC BY Via Microsoft Word images

Every three minutes, someone in the UK develops dementia. Over 850,00 people in the UK are currently living with a form of the disease; 40,000 of these are people under the age of 65.  This week (20th– 26th May) is Dementia Action Week 2019. This year the focus is on encouraging people to talk about dementia, and to talk to people with dementia in order to help tackle loneliness and isolation among those who suffer from the condition, as well as to raise awareness and improve understanding around the condition and the impact it can have.

The power of music

You may have recently come across the BBC programme featuring Line of Duty’s Vicky McClure Our Dementia Choir (if you haven’t you should try and find a copy).  The documentary follows a group of people who suffer from varying degrees and types of dementia and highlights in sometimes painfully sad detail the changes and challenges that can occur when someone develops the disease. However, it also shows the great joy and relief that music brings to dementia sufferers and their families. We blogged a few years ago about the benefits of music therapy in dementia care – and since then the literature and research on its usage in different settings has only grown.

Research shows that music, in various forms can help encourage participation and trigger positive associations which can be really helpful for people suffering from dementia, particularly if they feel like a lot of other things may have changed. In our previous blog we highlighted a Care Inspectorate backed scheme called ‘playlist for life’ which encourages care homes to integrate music into their care for patients with dementia. Moving beyond just allocating a time to place headphones onto a patient and leaving them to listen alone (although at times this may be helpful too), the aim is for music to be a vehicle for connected care. It allows carers to use music as a tool to find out more about the person they are caring for and encourage them to engage through the music.

Tackling isolation with art, culture and the natural environment

Research has shown that it is not only music that can have a positive impact on quality of life for people with dementia. Painting and drawing, making use of the natural surroundings by encouraging gardening or light walking in safe spaces, and games like dominoes and draughts can all help in their own way to improve the quality of life for people living with dementia and provide an opportunity for loved ones to re-connect.

In a 2014 study researchers examined the experiences of people with dementia and their carers when they participated in an 8 week programme based in an art gallery designed specifically to tackle social isolation and improve quality of life for both the person suffering from dementia and their carer. The study found that while the impact in terms of qualitative measures was negligible, participants were unanimous in their enjoyment and satisfaction with the programme. They highlighted that the interventions at the galleries helped to foster social inclusion and social engagement, enhance the caring relationship between the carers and people with dementia, and stimulate cognitive processes of attention and concentration. In a similar study, looking at the impact of art and gallery settings and programmes delivered within these settings, similarly positive emotional effects on study participants were found.

In Liverpool, they are making the most of their city landscape and the fact that specific locations, building and objects around the city can act as positive triggers for people who suffer from dementia, stimulating memory and interest. Those individuals who are mobile enough can participate in “memory walks” (different from the Memory Walks convened by the Alzheimer’s Society, which are sponsored walks designed to help raise money and offer a public show of support for people with the illness). This not only helps to improve physical activity, it can also be an opportunity for people with dementia to connect with other people as the walks are usually carried out in small groups, they are also linked to befriending schemes across the city to help reduce social isolation among multiple groups.

Similarly, many care homes now also promote interaction with nature and outside spaces for residents with dementia, with many developing specifically landscaped “sensory” gardens for residents, while other innovative supported living accommodation projects have gone a step further and created entire villages on site, which allows residents to perform tasks such as shopping or visiting a hairdresser. (This project is based in the Netherlands, but there are suggestions that a similar scheme could also come to the UK in 2020.)

VR and creating virtual experiences for people

Using digital technologies has also become increasingly popular, particularly in care homes. Apps and VR headsets which allow people to be immersed in an experience they perhaps once enjoyed, such as flying (if for example they had previously been a pilot or air crew) or driving have been shown to have a significant positive impact on people’s wellbeing allowing them to reconnect with their past and memories and freeing them from the sense of being trapped and losing their independence which can sometimes come with moving away from home into supported accommodation.

Tablet computers and touchscreen technology can also sometimes be easier for people with dementia to use as they do not require the same level of dexterity as writing. Apps have been developed which can help with word association or use pictures which can be helpful in allowing people with dementia to communicate when their use of language becomes more of a challenge. While the technology its self is relatively new, research has shown definite scope and benefit of further development of this in the future, as well as relevant training for staff and carers on digital literacy to help support users.

A support to clinical interventions

Dementia is a cruel illness – 1 in 3 of us in the UK will develop a form of the condition at some point in our lives. As yet there is no cure and as the population ages, and life expectancy improves more generally, the number of cases is expected to rise dramatically in the coming years. However, where science is trying to cure, art and culture is trying to supplement and support the clinical interventions and, where possible, provide opportunities to improve the quality of life for people suffering with the condition and provide opportunities for people to re-connect with loved ones.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Enjoy this article? You might also be interested in reading:

Is technology really the answer to social isolation and loneliness?

Old man sitting on a benchBy Steven McGinty

As we head towards Christmas, the media is filled with images of families coming together and enjoying the festivities. However, the reality is that many people will not be spending the Christmas period with loved ones, and will be spending the festive season alone.

In April, Future Cities Catapult produced a report into the impact of social isolation and loneliness. They highlight that those experiencing social isolation and loneliness have an increased likelihood of developing health conditions such as dementia (1.9 times more likely) and depression (3.4 times more likely). In addition, there is a 26% increased risk of mortality.

The report also included findings from the Mormont Review, highlighting that in emergency situations social networks have a significant impact on recovery.

Individuals who are socially isolated are between two and five times more likely than those who have strong social ties to die prematurely. Social networks have a larger impact on the risk of mortality than on the risk of developing disease, in the sense it is not so much that social networks stop you from getting ill, but that they help you to recover when you get ill.

It’s this substantial impact on people lives’ – and the costs to the health service – which has led to many public bodies looking for ways to tackle social isolation and loneliness.

Technology-based interventions, in particular, are some of the most innovative approaches to addressing the issue that affects over half of all people aged 75 and over who live alone, as well as increasing numbers of young people. Below we’ve outlined some of the most interesting examples.

CogniWin

CogniWin provides support and motivation for older people to stay active and in employment by providing smart assistance and well-being guidance. It helps people to adapt cognitively with their work tasks through their interactions with a system (which collects information using an intelligent mouse and eye tracking software). A virtual Adaptive Support and Learning Assistant then provides feedback, which helps the older person adapt their working lifestyle or have the confidence to take up a part-time job or become a volunteer.

Casserole Club

Casserole Club is a social enterprise that brings together people who enjoy cooking and who often share extra portions with those who may not be able to cook for themselves. Founded by FutureGov and designed in partnership with four local authorities, the service uses its website to allow volunteers to sign up and search for diners in their area (most of which, are over 80 years old). Overall, there are 4,000 cooks nationwide, and 80% of diners highlight that they wouldn’t have much social contact without the Casserole Club.

Family in Touch (FIT) Prototype

The Family in Touch (FIT) prototype was developed by a team of Canadian researchers who noticed that elderly people in care homes and retirement communities often touched photographs in an attempt to connect with family members. Based on this, the team created a touch screen photo frame which sent a message to a relative to say that they were thinking of them. The relative was then able to record a video message, which could be viewed by the elderly person in the photo frame. It was found that elderly people appreciated the simple design and tactile user experience.

Final thoughts

These are just some of the innovative tools being used to tackle social isolation and loneliness. And although technology is not the whole solution, it can certainly provide new opportunities for projects seeking to provide friendship and support to those who feel disconnected.

Individually, we can also make a difference. Even just making a phone call to an elderly relative, sending a message to an old friend, or visiting a neighbour, can brighten up someone’s day.


The Knowledge Exchange provides information services to local authorities, public agencies, research consultancies and commercial organisations across the UK. Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team. 

Digital childhoods: what technology means for the development of children

By Rebecca Jackson

The recent advancement of technology in society has been fast and significant. Young adults who were children themselves less than 15 years ago have admitted that, even to them, the difference in ‘childhood’ as they remember it and how it appears to be today is stark. And for many older members of the public, the advances have made ‘childhood’ almost unrecognisable. The Scottish Universities Insight Institute is currently running a series of seminars looking at digital technology across the life course, one of which considered the role of technology in relation to young children.

Creative Commons,Ty, 2007

Image by Ty via Creative Commons

Common misconceptions

The debate around the use of digital technology by children is fraught with hearsay and sometimes distorted reporting of statistics in the mainstream media. This has resulted in confusion about what it means to be digitally literate, and an emphasis on the negative views that people have about children using technology.

These are some of the most common misconceptions as identified by a group of researchers from the Scottish Universities Insight Institute:

  • Digital technology is just laptops and computers: When many people refer to ‘digital technology’ they talk about laptops, tablet computers and desktops. In fact, the term covers a far wider range of devices and activities. This includes cameras, video games consoles, streaming music or listening to an mp3 player or iPod, using Skype or FaceTime to communicate, mobile phones, streaming videos on youtube and watching TV or DVDs.
  • Less affluent socioeconomic groups don’t have access to digital technology: While academics commented that their study showed there may not have been as many devices in lower income households, most still had access to mobile phones, televisions, the internet, a games console, an interactive toy, an mp3 player or IPod, camera or a tablet computer.
  • Children engaging with digital technology comes at the expense of ‘traditional play’: Studies have shown that, contrary to popular belief, children still have more access to, and spend more time playing with, ‘traditional toys’ such as dolls, cars, soft toys and outdoor equipment. The study also highlighted that children use digital experiences to inform their own imaginative play. They were observed acting out scenes or engaging with imaginary characters from films or television programmes and pretending to use laptops and mobile phones during play, rather than using them directly.
  • Children know more about digital technology than adults: Children don’t know anything until they are exposed to it – much of children’s exposure comes from parents and is representative of the use by other family members. A study also showed that if a child was completing an activity using digital technology (a video game for example) which they found too difficult or “fiddly” then this could deter them from using technology in the future.
  • Children using digital technology are more socially isolated and reclusive: This is a common stereotype which is normally directed at older children and adolescents. However children of all ages have been found to use digital technology as a facilitator of social relationships. This includes the use of websites like Facebook and Twitter, as well as the use of Skype and FaceTime to communicate with overseas relatives or friends.
Creative Commons,Antonio Thomás Koenigkam Oliveira, 2012

Image by Antonio Thomás Koenigkam Oliveira via Creative Commons

Blended learning

Many academics who study the impact of digitisation on children (or people in general) highlight the unhelpful nature of the “good/bad” debate.  As one researcher at a recent conference held at Strathclyde University stated: “Blended learning – a combination of digital and traditional learning – is best for children and their development; quite often in studies we have found that children do this naturally themselves.”

Examples of this which were given was a child acting out a scene from the Disney film Frozen with soft toys, once they had seen the film on the television. Others could include printing out characters from films or TV shows to colour in with pencil or crayon, and children using a camera to capture memories or take photos of things which are interesting to them while outside playing or on a walk.

kid-taking-photos-with-cheap-digital-camera

Image by Photoflurry via Creative Commons

Same moral objections, different context

The technology may be different, but the moral questions are the same ones that have been plaguing innovations and inventions for hundreds of years. The arrival of comics, the transmission of radio (which was once thought to be toxic for children to hear), the spread of ideas promoted by television, even the electrification of homes, have all been met with some level of trepidation by the general public. Fears about digital technology and the normalisation of its use in everyday life will, academics feel, eventually be surpassed by a new technology which we can panic over instead.

Use in education

This is one of the more contentious issues for many teachers and local authorities. There are questions about the extent to which digital technologies should be integrated in to the curriculum, particularly in the early years, and the role of the teacher in relation to digital learning. It is also clear that teacher enthusiasm and training in using digital technology is important to ensure that children get the most out of digital teaching.

Some schools have trialled bring your own device to school initiatives, although the reception given to these has been mixed. Many schools and teachers also make use of interactive whiteboards and on-line portals to set homework and to give children access to resources. There has been a suggestion that children and teachers should work with software developers to produce more apps, programmes and effective digital learning resources.

In Scotland, integrating digital elements to the curriculum has been improved by the transition to the Curriculum for Excellence. However, some schools still struggle with a lack of resources and have to continue to make use of an “ICT slot” in order to allow children to be able to access technology on a one-to-one basis.

The general consensus among education practitioners towards digital technology appears to be positive however, with many schools using online channels to communicate with pupils and parents. Some classes have blogs which the children are encouraged to contribute to, and others have utilised online web chats to twin with schools abroad in a  modern-day pen pal set up.

Creative Commons, Kathy Cassidy, 2006

Image by Kathy Cassidy via Creative Commons

A right to digital literacy?

Another issue being discussed by academics and policy makers is the idea of a right to digital literacy. In the view of many, digital learning should be integrated into everyday traditional learning to equip children with digital skills. Failing to prepare children, some academics argue, would inhibit their ability to contribute effectively in a digitised world.

It is clear that the debate around digital technology and child development will continue, and there is a need for both further study and better communication of research findings to the wider public.


Read our other recent blogs on children’s policy:

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Social prescribing – just what the doctor ordered?

blue toned, focus point on metal part of stethoscope

By Heather Cameron

It is widely acknowledged that wider social, economic and environmental factors have a significant influence on health and wellbeing. According to recent research only 20% of health outcomes are attributable to clinical care and the quality of care while socioeconomic factors account for 40%.

With increasing pressures on GPs and lengthy waiting times a real issue for many, particularly those with mental health conditions, social prescribing could represent a real way forward.

The government clearly recognised the importance of social prescribing in its new deal for GPs announced earlier this year, which made a commitment to make social prescribing a normal part of the job.

In response to a recent Ask-a-Researcher request for information on different approaches in social prescribing and evidence of what works in the UK, it was interesting to find that despite the recognition of potential value, there has been little evaluation of social prescribing schemes to date.

Much of the material found focused on specific interventions and small-scale pilots and discussion around implementation. A new review of community referral schemes published by University College London (UCL) is therefore a welcome addition to the evidence base as it provides definitions, models and notable examples of social prescribing schemes and assesses the means by which and the extent to which these schemes have been evaluated.

So what is social prescribing?

Social prescribing means linking patients with non-medical treatment, whether it is social or physical, within their community.

A number of schemes already exist and have included a variety of prescribed activities such as arts and creative activities, physical activity, learning and volunteering opportunities, self-care and support with finance, benefits, housing and employment.

Often these schemes are delivered by voluntary, community and faith sector organisations with detailed knowledge of local communities and how best to meet the needs of certain groups.

Social and economic benefits

Despite a lack of robust evidence, our investigation uncovered a number of documents looking at the social prescribing model and the outcomes it can lead to. Positive outcomes repeatedly highlighted include:

  • improved health and wellbeing;
  • reduced demand on hospital resources;
  • cost savings; and
  • reduced social isolation.

According to the UCL report, the benefits have been particularly pronounced for marginalised groups such as mental health service-users and older adults at risk of social isolation.

A recent evaluation of the social and economic impact of the Rotherham Social Prescribing Pilot found that after 3-4 months, 83% of patients had experienced positive change in at least one outcome area. These outcomes included improved mental and physical health, feeling less lonely and socially isolated, becoming more independent, and accessing a wider range of welfare benefit entitlements.

The evaluation also reported that there were reductions in patients’ use of hospital services, including reductions of up to a fifth in the number of outpatient stays, accident and emergency attendances and outpatient appointments. The return on investment for the NHS was 50 pence for each pound invested.

Similarly, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has recently argued that empowering patients improves their health outcomes and could save money by supporting them to manage their condition themselves.

IPPR suggests that if empowering care models such as social prescribing were adopted much more widely throughout the NHS we would have a system that focused on the social determinants of health not just the symptoms, providing people with personalised and integrated care, that focused on capabilities not just needs, and that strengthened people’s relationships with one another.

Partnership working

With a continued policy focus on integrated services and increased personalisation, social prescribing would seem to make sense. In addition to providing a means to alternative support, it could also be instrumental in strengthening community-professional partnerships and cross-collaboration among health, social and other services.

The New Local Government Network (NLGN) recently examined good practice in collaboration between local authorities, housing associations and the health sector, with Doncaster Social Prescribing highlighted as an example of successful partnership working. Of the 200 referrals made through this project, only 3 were known to local authority and health and wellbeing officers, showing that the work of social prescribing identified individuals who had otherwise slipped through the net.

And with the prospect of an ageing population and the health challenges this brings, a growing number of people could benefit from community-based support.

As Chair of Arts Council England, Sir Peter Bazalgette, notes “social prescribing is an idea whose time has come”.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team.

Further reading: if you liked this blog post, you might also want to read Heather’s earlier post on the health and wellbeing benefits of investing in public art.

Shedding light on a serious issue: how Men’s Sheds are tackling social exclusion

by Stacey Dingwall

Promoting awareness of health and social issues among men, and particularly older men, has always been a tricky challenge. According to research, the longstanding stereotype of men who actively avoid visiting the doctor is true: significant numbers of older men may be experiencing loneliness and isolation due to their reluctance to join clubs for older people, a fact which may explain why suicide rates are higher among middle-aged and older (white) men.

One initiative that has tried to tackle this issue is the Men’s Sheds movement, which originated in Australia in the 1990s after concerns were raised over the lack of opportunities for older men to socialise and discuss any issues they were having with their peers. This led to the emergence of numerous Men’s Sheds across the country, in the form of workshops where men could come together to engage in traditional shed-orientated activities such as woodwork, as well as form new social connections and access health information.

The benefits of Men’s Sheds

Evaluations of Men’s Sheds have identified a range of benefits for the men who participate in them, as well as for the wider community. Older men and social activity: a scoping review of Men’s Sheds and other gendered interventions published in Ageing and Society in April 2015 identified a range of positive effects of the initiative on older men, particularly in terms of improvements in their mental health and wellbeing status. While limited evidence was found of a positive impact on the men’s physical health, the review did find that belonging to a Men’s Shed provided participants with both a personal and social sense of accomplishment – through learning and sharing skills and contributing to their local community – as well as a sense of purpose, through social engagement with their peers which enabled opportunities for fun and camaraderie.

Men’s Sheds in the UK

Between 2010 and 2012, Age UK ran a ‘Men in Sheds’ pilot project, initially limited to Kendal, Bildworth and South London. The popularity of the pilot saw it covered in the national press and other ‘Men in Sheds’ projects soon opened in other areas, with one participant expressing his regret that the initiative had not been established in his area years ago.

In 2013, the UK Men’s Sheds Association was launched. They provide information on how to start a new Men’s Shed, or develop an existing organisation, and have helped form regional networks of Sheds.

One of these networks is in Glasgow, which is now home to the Glasgow Area Men’s Sheds (GAMS) group. We spoke to current GAMS secretary Charlie, who became involved in Men’s Sheds after illness led to him experiencing unemployment and social isolation. After coming across the UK Men’s Sheds Association website, he met up with six other men who were also interested in starting a Shed in Glasgow. Fast forward a year, and there are now at least six separate Sheds in the Glasgow area, at which Charlie estimates there are around 80 regular attendees. For Charlie personally, involvement with Men’s Sheds has allowed him to “build a portfolio of work experience, gain possible references, meet new people, go to new places and do new things”.

Charlie also pointed to research published by the Joint Improvement Team (JIT) in February 2015 which highlights the rapid spread of Men’s Sheds throughout Scotland over the last two years, with Sheds now in 18 of the country’s 32 local authority areas. The report also looks at the development paths of Men’s Sheds, as well as drawing out lessons for other community capacity building initiatives and outlining the local and community support needed to develop a Shed.

What about the women!

According to GAMS, the question of why the Sheds are men-only affairs is a common one. Their response is that “Men’s Sheds address specifically male issues involving male social isolation, men’s health both physical and psychological, re-defining of masculinity in modern society […] women have much more and highly developed socialising group opportunities”.

As well as highlighting a tendency towards loneliness among older men, research has also indicated another trend – the decline of men’s social networks as they age, particularly after the death of a partner. Thus, the importance of Men’s Sheds in “promoting social engagement and healthy, active ageing among older men” is perfectly demonstrated.


The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on active and healthy ageing. To find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Further reading:

The experiences of older male adults throughout their involvement in a community programme for men, IN Ageing and Society, Vol 35 No 3 Mar 2015, pp531-551

Tackling men’s health: implementation of a male health service in a rugby stadium setting, IN Community Practitioner, Vol 84 No 4 Apr 2011, pp29-32

One hundred not out: resilience and active ageing

Active ageing: live longer and prosper – realising the benefits of extended healthy life expectancy and ‘disability compression’ in Europe

Ageing, health and innovation: policy reforms to facilitate health and active ageing in OECD countries

How should we address loneliness and social isolation among older people?

For elderly men sitting on a bench

Image courtesy of http://goo.gl/A8ykMA using a Creative Commons licence.

By Steven McGinty

“Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted, is the most terrible poverty“– Mother Teresa

Yet, for many older people, loneliness and social isolation are the normal state of affairs. A recent study by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that 34% of people aged 52 and over felt lonely often or sometimes, with this figure reaching 46% for people aged 80 or over. Rather worryingly, a report by Age UK also suggested that over half of older people consider the television as their main source of company.

In many respects, these figures may not be too surprising, with some arguing that this is simply the by-product of changing societal attitudes. Conversely, it could also be said that these changes are a response to the demands of busy modern life. For example, a report published by the Royal Voluntary Service highlights that, because of uncertainty in the job market, many children have to move away from their parents for work reasons. The impact of this is that many older people are seeing their families less and less, with 48% of parents only seeing their children once every two to six months. Continue reading