A new app offers people with dementia the chance to enjoy some of the UK’s greatest cultural collections, from the comfort of their own home. Armchair Gallery is specially designed for people living with dementia. It is available today on both iOS and Android.

Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits”. However, old age and dementia present major barriers to visiting galleries and museums. In addition to the increased likelihood of physical health problems, people can suffer sensory overload in crowded public spaces. Loss of confidence and lack of companionship are common. Armchair Gallery was developed with the aim of addressing these issues.

Family with older member use iPad together

Photo by Anthony Hopwood

Last year an All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry Report, Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing (July 2017), explained that the arts have a significant role to play in meeting the major health challenge that dementia presents. It states that participation in the arts by older people can have an effect on health comparable to giving up smoking, and “Arts engagement can boost brain function and improve the recall of personal memories; it can also enhance the quality of life of people with dementia and their carers.”

The app showcases artworks and artefacts from the collections of seven of the UK’s leading cultural venues. They are Chatsworth House, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, The Lowry, Dulwich Picture Gallery, Pitt Rivers Museum, Mr Straw’s House and Newstead Abbey. Users can enjoy video tours presented by gallery and museum staff. Through the app’s 18 playable activities, people can interact with the artworks and artefacts. For instance, they can colour a Canaletto, design a Hepworth-inspired sculpture, and take a selfie with Lowry’s ‘Head of a Man’. The app comes with a comprehensive set of instructions for creative activities that family members and carers can do with the people they care for.

Chris Connell, aged 61, has been diagnosed with early onset dementia. He has been using the app throughout its development:

“The Armchair Gallery sessions have been a highlight of my week. I’ve been using it as part of my memories group. We all experience dementia differently and the app is brilliant because it lets people take part at a range of different levels. I’ve been inspired by artworks I wouldn’t otherwise be able to enjoy.”

Jane Connell is Chris’ wife and carer. She has been using the app with Chris as part of a dementia support group in Newark, North Nottinghamshire. She said:

“The app helps the group to reminisce. The artefacts it features bring back so many shared memories. We all leave feeling really relaxed and absorbed. We attended the sessions for Chris, who has dementia, but I look forward to them every week. It takes me away from the day to day stresses of being a carer. I can’t wait to use it at home.”

City Arts (Nottingham) created the app. A leading community arts organisation for over 40 years, City Arts has a long history of working with older people. It recently led the Imagine project, an acclaimed programme designed to bring art and culture into Nottingham’s care homes.

Kate Duncan, Programme Director – Wellbeing at City Arts and manager of the Armchair Gallery project, said:

“Armchair Gallery is a ground-breaking app that we hope will inspire people living with dementia and improve their lives. Over 4 years, we’ve collaborated with hundreds of older people, care staff, artists and cultural venues. We are delighted to be able to share what we have learned with everyone.”

The app’s development was funded by the Nominet Trust (now Social Tech Trust) and The Baring Foundation through their Digital Arts & Creative Ageing fund.

David Cutler. Director of The Baring Foundation, said:

“The Baring Foundation is very proud to have been a funder of the development of the Armchair Gallery app along with our partners the Nominet Trust and Arts Council England. It is a work of art in its own right and has been created with a lot of love and respect for the residents of care homes with which City Arts has been working. It is a major step forward in showing the potential and relevance of digital arts for older people. The Foundation has been privileged since 2010 to fund many wonderful arts projects working with older people, but Armchair Gallery is the one with the potential to have the greatest reach.”

The app is available as a free download for iOS on the Apple App Store. Android users can download it from the Google Play Store.