Northumberland dance scheme is helping to keep pensioners on the move

A new dance programme in Northumberland is helping older people keep both physically and mentally active

Emma Dunn and her dance class do an interactive session for the residents of Abbeyfield Care Home in Alnwick.
Emma Dunn and her dance class do an interactive session for the residents of Abbeyfield Care Home in Alnwick.

Football for three-old-years, pilates for expectant mums and weights while on your lunch break, there’s a fitness regime for everyone these days.

But what about the 432,600 men and women aged 65+ in the North East? According to the 2011 Census 18% of the region’s population are classed as pensioners yet the term does a disservice to many in the demographic far from frail and sat in their armchairs.

While netball, boxing or zorbing may not appeal, thousands of older residents are staying active for longer and finding, since retiring, they’ve got more time to spend on looking after themselves than ever before.

Once a week, tucked away in a Northumberland village hall a small group with a combined age of more than 500 meet up.

There might be a cup of tea and some chatter afterwards but for more than an hour the group known as Dexterity are put through their paces by dance teacher Emma Dunn.

There’s core strengthening exercises to improve balance and posture followed by ballet and contemporary dance moves set to create lively routines.

Formed three years ago the group is supported by Equal Arts, a Gateshead charity providing creative opportunities for older people to help improve health and wellbeing while staying active.

The benefits of dance in older age have been found to improve balance and motor skills. In 2010 a study divided 40 women aged 65 into two groups. The research found those in the dance group performed better in a series of tests than those in the control group.

Anne Ousby is a retired teacher now working as a novelist from Dunstan near Craster. The 72-year-old initially joined Dexterity as a way to stay active.

Emma Dunn and her dance class do an interactive session for the residents of Abbeyfield Care Home in Alnwick. Pictured is Jenny Beck.
Emma Dunn and her dance class do an interactive session for the residents of Abbeyfield Care Home in Alnwick. Pictured is Jenny Beck.
 

She said: “Other forms of keep fit didn’t interest me. Dance is an amazing way to stay supple and active, but it’s also huge fun and we tend to laugh most of the time. I certainly miss the sessions when I’ve been away on holiday.

“There will always be stereotyping surrounding old age, as there is about everything, but Dexterity gives me the opportunity to dance about and sometimes make a fool of myself amongst people I like and trust.

“Older people are no different than anyone else when it comes to creativity and should be able to take part in any creative activity they are comfortable with. Creativity is the bread of life and without it we become old.”

For 63-year-old Jenny Beck from Alnmouth, being a member of the 20-strong dance group is just one of the creative ways she keeps healthy along with painting, golf and cycling.

She said: “Remembering the dance steps from week to week is good for the memory and then there’s the balance and stretching, Emma is good at choosing exercises for all ages and abilities.

“To stay fit you don’t have to be good at sports, but the more you move the fitter you become and the better you feel and look. It’s about eating healthily, keeping active both mentally and physically for as long as possible and a Dexterity class is a great place to start.”

Supported by Equal Arts the group uses creativity as a way to keep active but also to engage with older people in its work with Abbeyfield, a residential care setting in Alnwick.

Emma Dunn and her dance class do an interactive session for the residents of Abbeyfield Care Home in Alnwick. Pictured Barbara Naylor.
Emma Dunn and her dance class do an interactive session for the residents of Abbeyfield Care Home in Alnwick. Pictured Barbara Naylor.
 

For the past two years Dexterity members have taken their dances into the care home where they interact with staff and residents.

Known as Creative Ageing, dance, music and visual arts are a way to engage with people living with dementia, providing an interactive alternative to reminiscence and memory-based activities.

More commonplace in America it is a concept being championed by Equal Arts in the North East. Based in Gateshead the charity is attracting international interest in its work while currently teaming up with Newcastle University for a research study exploring the impact of visual arts on dementia.

In a separate project Dexterity this month started its new initiative at Abbeyfield which saw them performing their playground-themed dance set to Brazilian music.

Group secretary Charmian Stevenson, 57, from Warkworth originally joined for the dance element of the classes which take in ballet and contemporary dance.

Emma Dunn, pictured left (pictured also is Barbara Spence) and her dance class do an interactive session for the residents of Abbeyfield Care Home in Alnwick.
Emma Dunn, pictured left (pictured also is Barbara Spence) and her dance class do an interactive session for the residents of Abbeyfield Care Home in Alnwick.
 

She said: “Going to Dexterity has physical and mental benefits but there is also social and psychological benefits of getting to know the members of the group and committing to a weekly activity.

“Then there is the wider work of Dexterity in the work we do with people in residential care and seeing the benefit to them of whatever level of movement they are able to achieve.

“Clichés around old age are changing and will have to change further as this country’s population demography changes. Ideally, everybody, of whatever age, should have some kind of creative outlet whether that’s dance, music, art or theatre.

“There doesn’t seem to be any doubt that these have powerful benefits for everyone and they can really help maintain good physical and mental health.”

Leading the ladies once a week on the dance floor at Dexterity, which is also open to men, is Emma Dunn.

Trained as a dance instructor she set the group up after more and more people in Northumberland people began asking if she ran any keep fit classes.

Emma, 40, said: “Living in Northumberland I find there is a lot more older people than younger people and there is a real need for this sort of service.

“At the time I thought I don’t really do keep fit but I can teach dance. I created sessions that use ballet and contemporary dance techniques to improve balance and core strength before we work together to create our dances. It is a really friendly and supportive group and new members are always welcome to come along and try it.

“Our sessions at Abbeyfield are about music and movement and I always try to bring laughter and joy to what we do. Sometimes residents don’t want to be involved but other times they do and it is all about that flicker of engagement.”

* To find out more about Dexterity email dansformation@me.com or contact Emma on 07920 514401. For more details on Equal Arts’ projects in the North East ring 0191 477 5775 or email information@equalarts.org.uk

CASE STUDY 1

Lynne Lambert, 63, lives in Alnwick and started going to Dexterity as it offered a more creative way of staying active and was sociable than the gym.

She said: “The combination of activities improve suppleness, strength and fitness, while also encouraging you to think as you remember simple routines.

“I always feel better after attending and the other women in the group are very friendly so it is also a social activity.

“I think lots of older people these days keep themselves fit, many are fitter than they were in earlier life, as retirement provides the time to exercise that is not always possible when working.

“Many of my friends are fitter than a lot of younger people. While perhaps not as strong or fast as they may have been years ago, they enjoy a healthy life in which exercise plays its part.”

CASE STUDY 2

Sarah Chesney, 64, from Warkworth, joined Dexterity as she enjoyed dance and wanted to get fit.

She said: “The class makes me laugh and I get to dance which is one of the best things in the world to lift your mood and get exercise, which is important whatever your age.

“The group is very friendly and people are not made to feel intimidated, they just have fun. We also learn group dances performing in public with some of Emma’s younger pupils.

“I would suggest other older people or any age group to join in. I think it is rather unfair to stereotype older people as some are really amazing and forward thinking.

“They might be trapped in an old body but the mind sometimes thinks it is still young person.”

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