How the arts can work for local authority commissioners when serving older people

David Cutler

David Cutler is Director of the Baring Foundation, one of the UK’s best known independent funders and has previously worked on social justice issues in the public and voluntary sectors.

For the past four years the Baring Foundation has focused its arts programme on arts and older people. It has been one of the best decisions that we have ever made and has been endlessly moving as well as artistically stimulating. Our most recent initiative has been the launch of a major grants programme with  Arts Council England on arts in care homes.

This post is driven by my passionate belief that there are opportunities and benefits for local authorities, and especially adult social care commissioners, to use arts activities to improve their services for older people.

At this moment I suspect that most local authority commissioners (if they have got this far) will be thinking that they need a new demand for their resources like a hole in the head. It is undoubtedly true that local authorities are facing staggering levels of cuts. However the arts can offer a cost effective way to meet a number of key priorities for local government.

There is now good evidence that the arts can have a positive impact on the physical and mental well-being of older people. In 2011, the Mental Health Foundation published ‘An Evidence Review of the Impact of Participatory Arts on Older People’. Artists have taken a great interest in working with people with dementia and neuro-science research is beginning to show the special benefits of music and singing for people living with dementia. The addition of public health to the responsibilities of local authorities here is especially helpful.


The arts have a strong role to play in prevention policies so that older people can age at home in their local community. Dance is frequently used to the benefit of both general health and the prevention of falls. For some people, dance is attractive and life affirming in a way that an exercise class never could be. Intergenerational arts projects such as those run by Magic Me, in the East End of  London, help social inclusion by building social capital between generations, cultures and ethnicities.

In summary, local authorities have a unique combination of roles and interests – health and well-being; arts and culture; older people’s services; social inclusions and community leadership – which make them best placed to value arts and older people.

And to end on a high note, ‘valuing older people’ reminds me of the strategy of the same name and magnificent work in Manchester over the last decade led by the City Council. Through thick and thin (and currently life must feel pretty thin at the moment), they have kept hold of a vision of what arts can mean for older people and put this into practice with a wide range of cultural partners. This commitment has actually enabled them to attract an additional £700k from other funders for arts with older people. The city is the first one in the UK to be awarded the status of an Age Friendly City by the World Health Organisation. All the city’s cultural organisations come together regularly to discuss their offer to older people and this is re-enforced by a team of 80 older Cultural Champions linking their peers to new artistic experiences.

Our ageing population will inevitably mean that greater attention will become a more prominent issue for the arts. Now is the time for more local authorities to take notice of their pioneering colleagues and join in.

A fuller version of this discussion can be found in our new publication Local Authorities + Older People +Arts = A Creative Combination.

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