Why I believe that digital arts are vital for people who use services

Featured article - 16 March 2016
By Lord Michael Bichard, SCIE chair

Head-shot of the author, Lord Michael Bichard, SCIE chair

More and more people are realising that arts and culture can address social issues, such as loneliness and mental health problems. People who use services can benefit from dance, music and the performing arts. And it’s really happening on the frontline of health and social care; for instance, GP practices are starting to employ artists-in-residence. The arts really can provide an ‘interest point’ and that can help tackle social isolation.

Taking that theme one stage further, it’s interesting to see that the Baring Foundation produced a report late last year which concluded that older people in particular need more access to digital arts. But what does ‘digital arts’ mean and what are the particular advantages that it brings?

Firstly it means providing information; directing people to art content, activities and events on and offline. It also means having an ‘experience’. That can mean providing access to works of art online (a good example is live-streaming of a concert). And it means participation; creating and taking part in an arts experience, for instance by supporting someone to make a digital drawing on an iPad. David Hockney recently created an exhibition where he used the Brushes App on his iPad and a digital inkjet printer. And why can’t this work in our sector? Care staff and carers can obviously have a key role to play here in making these digital opportunities available.

And this is an important chance to do something socially worthwhile. When you consider that, according to a report by Age UK, also published in 2015, one million people aged 65 and over feel ‘always’ or ‘very’ lonely, the report comes, I believe, at a vitally important time. And many older people suffer ‘digital isolation’ due to more and more services moving online. In 2011, 4.5 million people aged 65 and over had never been online.

But a lot is going on. Charity Alive!'s use of iPads puts older people at the heart of activity sessions, allowing them to make personal requests and choices. Alive! also support people to use iPads to create music, art, or to revisit a hobby. We at SCIE were proud to run the Get Connected programme a few years ago. Out of this came a wonderful guide about using IT in activities for people with dementia.

A third report from last year, this time from the King’s Fund, says that there is now significant evidence to indicate that providing access to digital arts has positive benefits to the general health and wellbeing of older people. This improvement in health and wellbeing can have an economic knock-on effect as it decreases the public cost of supporting older people by the NHS and through other social care services.

This all ties in with themes thrown up by the Care Act 2014, in that the answer to some people’s problems can lie way beyond the prism of traditional social care, however necessary those good services are. People are assets, with knowledge, skills and interests. In fact, good services can remove the barriers to active participation. And embracing digital arts is a great example of that philosophy in practice.

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