Good for the art

The arts seem to make us feel better – but how far do they really improve mental health? Dr Hilary Bungay’s latest research shows how arts activities genuinely transform the well-being of elderly people, helping to prevent loneliness in hospitals and care homes.

Dr Hilary Bungay was observing a dance workshop on an elderly care ward at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge, one day when one of the patients suddenly got to his feet and started waltzing with the group leader.

It is, she says, not exactly unknown: sometimes patients in these sessions feel uplifted, get up, and dance. But this case was different. “The ward staff couldn’t believe it,” Hilary recalls. “This man spent most of his time just sitting. They had barely ever seen him move.”

Whether we are dancing, singing, performing or painting, the arts do seem to do us good. But assessing how far they really affect our well-being, and explaining why, is a challenge. And in settings where the arts are being used to improve health, like hospitals and care homes, managers need to be sure that they are having an effect.

Hilary, a researcher in our School of Allied Health, works with organisations to provide that missing evidence, by assessing whether participatory “arts for health” programmes, that encourage creativity, really are helping some of our more vulnerable citizens.

Her interest in this area springs from a personal epiphany. Hilary had been undertaking health services research when an opportunity arose to study the benefits of singing among older people. “I thought we would find singing made no difference to their lives,” she says. “When I saw the impact it can have, I was converted.”

"Prehistoric societies made music, told stories, and painted because they provoke emotions and evoke memories. Through them, we connect."

She has recently completed two different projects: Creative Journeys, a programme of arts activities in care homes run by Essex County Council, and Dance For Health at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, in which a dance artist leads workshops on elderly care wards.

Both initiatives aim, in part, to improve mental health and well-being. And with good reason: in homes and hospitals, older people often experience loneliness, boredom, isolation and depression. In one 2015 study of residents reporting mental health problems in care homes in Bedfordshire, for example, 80% said they felt lonely. “It’s a problem we often overlook,” Hilary says. “People know that residents are warm and well-fed; they assume they don’t need anything more.”

During the research for Essex County Council, Hilary worked alongside Professor Carol Munn-Giddings, Dr Ceri Wilson and Anna Dadswell. They conducted structured observations in three care homes that were running arts activities such as dance programmes, music sessions and storytelling workshops, and carried out detailed interviews with residents and staff.

They found that arts activities consistently left residents feeling happier, more confident and better connected with the staff. In turn, staff discovered more about the residents in their charge, strengthening relationships in these homes. Residents also felt that the activities gave them something interesting to talk about when relatives came to visit, making their conversations less one-sided.

"Arts activities consistently left residents feeling happier, more confident and better connected."

In the Dance for Health evaluation, which was commissioned through the Addenbrooke’s Charitable Trust, Hilary again used observations and interviews to assess how the dance workshops influenced hospital patients’ mood, confidence, well-being and interactions.

She found that about 70% of patients displayed recognised signs of an improved mood after the sessions. Interactions with staff again improved, and many patients also felt more able to perform basic tasks, like getting dressed, without support. One patient, whose condition had been gradually deteriorating, started to re-engage with his physiotherapy after attending the sessions. Having seemed destined to spend the rest of his life in care, he was able to return home.

Hilary suggests that the arts have this transformative effect partly for evolutionary and scientific reasons. When we sing together, our heart rates and breathing synchronise. Dancing, laughing, or storytelling are vehicles that allow us to share powerful emotions. These activities create deep physical and psychological bonds, and help to overcome feelings of loneliness and isolation.

“It’s something humans have done since the earliest times,” she adds. “Prehistoric societies made music, told stories, and painted because they provoke emotions and evoke memories. Through them, we connect.”

Positive Ageing Research Institute

Our Positive Ageing Research Institute addresses ageing-related issues, including improving quality of life; fostering independent living; and using technology-enabled healthcare to help older people manage their conditions.

If you’d like to find out more about how you can access our research expertise, please get in touch with Rana Zayadin, Partnerships Development Manager for the Faculty of Health, Education, Medicine and Social Care. on 01245 683505.