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Library service commissioning arts activities for vulnerable older people - Libraries Development Initiative

  • Date: 3 June 2013
  • Artform: Libraries
  • Area: National, North
two older people study an iPad screen Participants in the Newcastle Libraries project, commissioning arts activities for vulnerable adults., Photo: courtesy Newcastle Libraries

This scheme, pioneered by Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums and Manchester City Council, and supported through the Arts Council's Libraries Development Initiative, saw major cultural organisations working in partnership to engage vulnerable adults in libraries.

Watch a film about the scheme:


Manchester and Newcastle have sizeable populations of older people at risk of social isolation, particularly those living in areas of particular deprivation (for instance, Westgate, Walker and Byker in Newcastle; or Wythenshawe in Manchester).

The English Longitudinal Study on Ageing found that 29 per cent of older people are excluded through lack of social relations, a figure that increases with age. There is a proven need to focus on reducing need for intensive support by investing in low-intensity, preventative interventions.

Aims and objectives

Working out of local libraries, the scheme aimed to provide enjoyable and sociable activities for older people, helping them to develop new skills and prevent health decline and social isolation.

Libraries are trusted community spaces, supporting both formal and informal learning. By using libraries to deliver a combined arts and cultural programme to vulnerable adults, the scheme aimed to teach new practical skills, increase confidence, improve mental and physical health, and help engender a sense of community.

Both the Newcastle and Manchester schemes deliberately did not design detail of session content, as one of the aims was to engage with and respond to feedback from the target audience, as well as build a detailed understanding of the space and its resources.

Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums led a consortium of partners including: Dance City, Northern Stage, Theatre Royal, Centre For Life, Seven Stories, BALTIC, Globe Gallery, The Sage Gateshead. Newcastle City Learning and the Newcastle City Arts Development team also supported the work of the consortium.

It was decided each session would involve clear elements of participatory activity linked to exploration of place, including aspects of reminiscence, design, research, dance, music and visual art; and a clear practical outcome for participants, based on a mix of skills and improvements in physical and/or mental wellbeing.

Manchester City Council, working in collaboration with Adults Heath and Wellbeing, Community and Cultural Services and leisure service partners, conceived the idea of A Grand Day Out, a variety of communal and participatory events aimed at over 55s, taking place in leisure centres, libraries and partner sites in the local community.

Prior to the launch of a pilot at Wythenshawe Forum in January 2012, the partners arranged an ongoing, fortnightly stakeholder meeting to de-brief, discuss feedback and preview future activity.


Newcastle Adult Learning Services offered advice on how to recruit isolated older people. This was followed up by meetings with participants of local digital storytelling scheme Memory Box Project, a visit to a residential home, and consultation with The Elders Council, Quality of Life Partnership, AgeUK, Housing 21, Stroke Association, and local GPs. The scheme was promoted targeted flyering.

The scheme consisted of four sessions, running between four libraries, with each session delivered by at least two of the consortia partners and shaped to the venue in question. Each session lasted two to three hours, designed for a maximum of 20 participants. Cultural partners worked in pairs to develop and deliver these sessions, employing freelancers where necessary.

Workshops included:

  • exploring the theory of energy, including brainstorming, yoga, aikido and tai-chi. Led by dance artist Paula Turner and Noel Jackson from Centre For Life
  • storytelling, including favourite stories from childhood, extracts from Enid Blyton book and songwriting on the ukulele. Led by Kay Stott of Seven Stories and Bridie Jackson of The Sage Gateshead
  • favourite things, using objects to share personal stories and memories of place. Led by Jackie Phillips, freelancer for Northern Stage

Following meetings between Manchester City Council's Community and Cultural Service, Adults Health and Wellbeing Service, Wythenshawe Forum Trust and the local Real Volunteers network, A Grand Day Out was launched as a weekly pilot at Wythenshawe Forum in January 2012.

The Real Neighbours volunteer scheme has resulted in an extensive and comprehensive volunteering programme for A Grand Day Out. The volunteers have shown proficiency at data collection and publicity, and strong signposting skills, ensuring this project is both successful and sustainable.

A Grand Day Out at Wythenshawe consisted of events including: a relaxed coffee morning, games and chat session; an Active Lifestyles tea dance session; a 'Silver Surfer' IT skills drop-in; an art and craft session led by a Grand Day Out participant; and a six-week dance programme delivered by Dance In Greater Manchester.

Lessons learned

  • locating target audience
    Reaching isolated older people is challenging. Agencies, while supportive in principle, did not always effectively advocate the opportunity to their clients. A longer lead-in time, more face-to-face advocacy and a greater variety of commissioned activity would help reach the target audience
  • targeting
    Independent older people want to learn skills, and preferred the sessions that gave them that opportunity. For the more isolated older people, chances to share stories and interact with each other were of great benefit also
  • care necessities
    One participant in Newcastle needed a lot of assistance and project facilitators did not feel comfortable acting as carer. It is important to be clear about the levels of support that can be provided, and that support is in place for each individual involved.


New partnerships between the cultural sector and local authorities were formed, which will encourage future projects and collaboration. There is much potential for signposting other programmes so that participants can build on their experience and develop engagement with culture further. The Newcastle Arts Development team envisage future activities such as walking tours exploring local heritage. In Manchester, the Grand Day Out model is being rolled out in other Strategic Regeneration Framework areas across Manchester.

Funding events may be an issue of concern long-term, although successes in terms of recruiting third-sector volunteers in Manchester have proven valuable.

Learn more about the Libraries Development Initiative and read other case studies.