Creative homes: an arts project in extra care housing

Author details

Neil McCarthy is assistant director of care and support at Octavia. 


Creative arts can add significantly to quality of life among extra care housing residents, improving mood, self-esteem and communication.  Neil McCarthy describes a project run by not-for-profit housing provider Octavia. 

A paintbrush moves across a piece of drawing paper and slowly an image begins to emerge. As the page is transformed so is the painter; an older gentleman who becomes noticeably less agitated. The artist has dementia and is taking part in a weekly arts and crafts session at an extra-care scheme run by London-based housing and care provider, Octavia. 

The benefits of arts and crafts for people with dementia have long been known in the research community and are now gaining traction among professional carers in the housing sector too. In February 2020, we launched a new programme to provide residents in our extra care schemes with a range of arts and crafts activities that aim to help maintain or improve the quality of their life.  

We wanted these activities to be available to everyone, regardless of their previous experience.  Heading up the project, activity coordinator Josephine Ibrahim was seconded from her role as a senior care assistant at Octavia’s community hub to  work in two of our schemes, James Hill House and Burgess Fields.  

Josephine’s approach was to get to know residents from the outset and work with them to organise artistic activities which matched their interests. Building trust was fundamental to the process and before starting she spent time talking to them about their interests and hobbies. While some were immediately interested, inexperience deterred others from taking part.  

Providing people with the opportunity to continue with things that they have done before and build on what has been an important part of their lives is crucial. But it can be equally important to establish the conditions allowing people to try things that they have never attempted before and which they may have assumed were for others and not for them. Gentle encouragement from Josie and other care staff inspired people from both groups to give it a go –with transformative results.  

The benefits experienced by residents can be grouped into the following categories: 

  • Less distress: Decreased agitation and improved mood both during and after the activity  
  • Better state of mind: Concentration on the task at hand involves focus, mental activity, imagination and memory. This, in turn, improved self-esteem and generated positive feelings about the self. 
  • More socialising: Many activities took place in groups and brought with them interaction and a sense of inclusion, countering a common aspect of dementia and old age – loneliness and isolation. There was a new point of contact, something to talk about and a different form of interaction. Many residents demonstrated a greater ability to connect and socialise with the people around them.  
  • Improved communication: Creative activities acted as an outlet of expression enabling residents to effectively communicate their innermost feelings and thoughts.  
  • Sense of achievement: Participation brought about a sense of achievement and residents’ increased ability to put their own stamp on things, making their mark and expressing something that was significant and personal.  
  • Stimulated senses: Physical engagement cannot be underestimated, especially the benefits on motor skills and coordination. When participating, residents’ senses were stimulated by colours, textures and sound.  

Since the project’s inception, activities have included painting, drawing and visual arts such as card making, collage, sketching, sculptures and model homes – with finished products all displayed at two exhibitions attended by residents and their friends and family.  

Simon’s experience (not his real name) is a prime example of the benefits creative activities can have for people with dementia. A new-found love for painting has significantly improved his self-esteem and reduced his visits to hospital. Despite having no prior experience, the sessions have become a focal point of Simon’s week and he was delighted to be able to put his paintings up in his home and share photos with family living abroad.  

There are many forms of dementia and, of course, everyone with dementia is different. That is why we offer a wealth of activities to suit residents’ varying needs and interests. Residents at two other schemes have been enjoying hours of active fun through interactive games designed to enrich the lives of people with dementia. For example, “magic table” technology, which can be played on any flat surface, uses images, lights and sound to engage people with games including gardening, splashing in rock pools and popping bubbles.     

Designed with older people in mind, the technology uses a light projector to project images on to a flat surface, such as a tabletop, ceiling or floor, and simple hand movements produce magical effects. Therapeutic sounds drawn from the natural world promote feelings of calm, while images of the past stimulate reminiscence and give a boost to cognitive and mobility skills. When Maggie (not her real name) was bed-bound and receiving end-of-life care, staff projected flowing water onto her bedsheet to soothe her anxiety and distress.  

Staff understand the need to adjust activities based on a resident’s mood. Assessments are critical and adaptability even more so. In the later stages of dementia, other creative and social activities can be more appropriate. Maggie benefitted from chats and visits to her flat and interactions aided by a toy bear. The teddy bear gave her company during the day and helped to reduce her stress and agitation.  

Changing levels of cognition meant that Jean (not her real name) was no longer able to take part in artistic activities, but she still appreciated the company and camaraderie as she watched her peers get involved. A change in approach meant that she actively participated in music club and doll therapy instead. For Jean, in the later stages of dementia, doll therapy lifted her wellbeing and ability to communicate, while also decreasing feelings of restlessness, anxiety and distress.  

Our arts and crafts extra care project has revealed the uplifting potential and power of the arts as a positive force in the lives of people with dementia. A wide range of creative activities have become a natural part of daily life for residents, and this is a positive and encouraging development.  

We regard the availability of these activities as crucial at all stages of dementia, whether individuals are living in supported housing, accommodation with extra care or within the community. As long as we bear individual needs in mind, different forms of arts activities, both individually and in groups, can contribute to health and wellbeing and help people stay connected to social groups and communities. 

Some of the paintings created by Octavia residents, including Francis and Melinda – shown here at work.

About Octavia

Founded by Victorian philanthropist Octavia Hill in 1865, we have a strong sense of social purpose and provide a wide range of not-for-profit care and support services for older and vulnerable adults living in London.  We offer housing with different levels of care and support through our extra care housing, sheltered housing and supported housing developments, and are particularly known for the work we do with those experiencing dementia. We focus on care for the individual, supporting older and vulnerable adults to stay active, take care of themselves, continue to be part of their local communities, and stay as independent as they wish for as long as possible.