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Director of Gateshead-based charity Equal Arts is set to meet the Queen

Gateshead-based charity Equal Arts is spreading the word about the value of creativity for people of all ages

Alice Thwaite, of Equal Arts in Gateshead
Alice Thwaite, of Equal Arts in Gateshead

Alice Thwaite, as director of Gateshead-based Equal Arts, has been promoting the cause of creative ageing for more than 20 years and next Wednesday she is off to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen.

They shouldn’t have any trouble finding common ground.

Equal Arts specialises in providing the elderly with opportunities for self-expression, thereby improving their sense of wellbeing. Her Majesty is an active 88-year-old, though probably not short of opportunities to express herself.

Alice’s audience with the Queen actually comes through her involvement with the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust which is marking its 50th anniversary.

It was set up in 1965 as a living memorial to the great man, preserving his legacy by funding British people to travel abroad to find new ways to tackle challenges facing the UK.

In 2010 Alice was awarded a fellowship by the Trust to travel to Ireland and America to look at examples of good practice in arts for the elderly.

Since then she has been an adviser to the Churchill Trust.

Hen mugs at Equal Arts in Gateshead
Hen mugs at Equal Arts in Gateshead

As a measure of the high regard in which she is held, she also sits on the Prime Minister’s task group advising on a dementia-friendly arts sector.

“Creative ageing as an idea feels like it’s really being picked up at the moment,” says Alice in her high-ceilinged office where dozens of happy Equal Arts customers smile down at us from a photo display.

“What is interesting at the moment is the number of arts organisations looking into this work and that we’re helping to support.

“We’ve been working with the National Glass Centre and we’re going to be working with Baltic, looking at how to do artistic programming with people with dementia.

“There has been some fantastic work done on this in New Yorkat Moma (the Museum of Modern Art).”

You have to say that fantastic work has also been going on here.

Equal Arts has been refining its work with the elderly since it picked up the baton from an earlier organisation called Shape, which did good work in the 1980s before losing its funding.

“I’ve been here for 22 years,” says Alice. “I came to work on a particular older people’s project when the charity worked with various different groups. But the work we did with older people felt really important because no-one else was doing it.” Alice had been very close to her grandmother when growing up in Norfolk. “She helped bring me up. I came to Newcastle University to study Classics but I realised when my grandmother had to move into a care home that I wanted to do some proper work in this area. I went to work in a care home in Prudhoe.

“I loved working with people with dementia but I found the management unimaginative. I’d drive people to National Trust houses and we’d have a lovely time but it wasn’t seen as valuable at all.

“I left there and went to work for Gateshead Council’s arts team because I knew I wanted to do some work around the arts. It was a fantastic training ground because we did a lot of high quality work based in the community.

“It made me feel that all people deserve to have good arts experiences. Because my grandmother had dementia, I could see the fun she would have had from a creative programme.”

Alice Thwaite, of Equal Arts in Gateshead
Alice Thwaite, of Equal Arts in Gateshead

Throughout her long directorship of Equal Arts, Alice has striven to ensure this is the experience of a lot of elderly people in the North East.

The charity engages some 30 freelance artists every year who work on a range of projects in old people’s homes and care homes across the region.

One of the most famous and unlikely was HenPower, a lottery-funded scheme which started at Shadon House in Birtley, Gateshead.

“It came about because my colleague, Douglas Hunter, had an arts programme there,” recalls Alice.

“One of the men in the home was talking about his friends and they couldn’t work out who these people were. Then they discovered they were his chickens. They said to Douglas, ‘I don’t suppose you could get some chickens?’

“It spiralled from there into a much bigger thing because everyone started wanting them. I see those chickens as a catalyst for change.

“Care homes can often be very dull places with nothing much going on. We’ve traditionally had artists going in but the hens have added something. We have done a lot of hen-related arts activities.”

It has also taken Equal Arts, which is non-profit-making, into the area of entrepreneurship.

Greetings cards and mugs with an egg theme – plus a quote from ‘hensioner’ (as the hen-loving pensioners are called) Ossie Cresswell: “I like me hens, I like me life” – are on sale in time for Easter and HenPower chocolate eggs are on the way.

Such has been the interest from further afield that Equal Arts is egg-rolling its scheme out across the country, selling HenPower packs to care home groups willing to invest in chicken-inspired happiness.

It’s a project born of the imagination that was lacking in the care home where Alice worked.

For as many years as I can remember, entertainment aimed at the elderly seems to have involved World War II singalongs. But surely that era is passing?

Alice winces slightly and says: “We fight against that a bit.”

While reminiscence has its place, Equal Arts looks more at the imagination as a model. “It’s great to create new things,” says Alice, adding that now the ‘baby boomers’ – that supposedly blessed generation born between World War II and the 1960s – are reaching pensionable age, more things are likely to get done.

Given the ageing population, this may be coming in the nick of time.

Dementia, says Alice, is “a massive issue” with some 800,000 registered sufferers in the UK. But that aside, she refers to an Arts Council report which identifies an equally massive drop in engagement with the arts among all people aged 70 plus.

“That is a growing area of people so it seems that even if you have been engaged in the arts, it becomes more difficult when you get to that age.”

Alice says the National Glass Centre scheme, which is likely to continue once extra funding has been raised, has been a big success. People were asked through the Essence Service (run by Age UK Sunderland for dementia sufferers and their carers) if they would like to get involved in something creative.

A hen mat at Equal Arts in Gateshead
A hen mat at Equal Arts in Gateshead

“We were inundated,” says Alice. “We worked with 24 people but we could have filled it three or four times over. They worked with glass artist Sue Woolhouse to make things out of glass and some of them said it’s the best thing they do in the week.

2A lot of the carers say it’s the only thing they get referred to that is nice. They tend to have a lot of medical appointments but this is something that says you can live with dementia.

“To make it happen, though, there have to be programmes and there are not enough.”

To rectify this, Equal Arts has been raising money to develop programmes with arts venues across the North East and Cumbria including Baltic in Gateshead, The Maltings in Berwick, Arc in Stockton, Mima in Middlesbrough, Abbott Hall Art Gallery in Kendal and Blackwell, the Arts & Crafts House at Bowness-on-Windermere.

Funders include Comic Relief, Northern Rock Foundation and the Ballinger Charitable Trust.

“Our job is to show there’s a demand and we have to put money in so the organisations see the worth of this work,” says Alice.

As arts organisations strive to grow their audiences and tap into new revenue sources, you sense Equal Arts is pushing at an open door.

And Alice Thwaite is not one to keep the benefits of its work to herself. Not only does she have the ear of the Queen and the Prime Minister, but she has been invited to speak about her work in Japan and Holland.

Last year film-makers from South Korea came to document it for decision-makers back home.

You can find out more about Equal Arts and its merchandise at www.equalarts.org.uk

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