In 2019-20, 2NQ ran a programme of heritage events and activities called People + Heritage with the communities around Finsbury Park, supported by funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Haringey Council. The Safe Space art workshops for older people and carers was one of the main programme strands.
We hosted a series of six remote, dementia-friendly workshops for older people and carers online, presented by 2NQ and joined by special guests, with landline telephone support for those without access to the internet.
In advance, we produced a workbook with six weeks’ worth of mindful creative activities, inspired by Finsbury Park’s social and environmental heritage. Intended for older people and carers, this was designed to be dementia friendly. We mailed the workbook with accompanying materials to 30 people living in the area, across the three boroughs of Haringey, Hackney and Islington.
Most members of this group would not have participated in a project like this in normal circumstances. With all the group now keen to meet in the park once it is safe to do so, we are interested in how ‘slow’ engagement – using multiple channels, such as virtual, post and telephone as in Safe Space – can be a precursor to meaningful ‘real life’ contact
Redesigning the project before it began
2NQ appointed Katy Hawkins as project manager to deliver a programme of safe space workshops aimed at vulnerable older people living in the three boroughs around Finsbury Park. The plan was to hold the workshops in the Art Hut near the Stroud Green entrance.
The intention was to give people whose access to heritage and culture is restricted a dedicated, protected space with the opportunity to engage with the park’s history and environmental landscape. By extension this would support the image and reality of the park as a safe space for all people, through actively programming for marginalised groups and building on the work of partner organisations in the park.
The project was due to commence in March, but the outbreak of Coronavirus forced a fundamental rethink of the approach by the 2NQ team. Following research and discussions, it was decided to go ahead with the project in a way that explored the challenges of the new situation, shifting to a hybrid delivery of the programme using post, online and landline telephones.
To reach the target group of older people with and without dementia, Katy reached out to numerous local charities and community centres, conducting extensive one-on-one conversations with facilitators and organisers and attending local meetings and events, all with the aim of understanding the current provision and where the learning gaps were. This involved sharing our ideas and seeking feedback, adapting the plan through what we learned. We also identified opportunities for joined-up working between groups whose aims overlapped, and we looked for partners who might be able to help us make the project sustainable.
Once the group was selected, we researched how to tailor the programme so it would most effectively reach, engage with, and benefit the group. This included conversations with best-practice practitioners and evaluating online courses.
2NQ designed a responsive programme of six weeks’ worth of activities. These were compiled in the form of a workbook that could be physically posted to participants.
The workbook comprised creative, mindful activities, inspired by the park’s social history and environmental landscape; along with interesting facts and curiosities relating to the park.
Activities included water-colouring exercises, colouring in, mindful photography, drawing and learning about trees, letter writing and more - with each drawing on the park as a point of inspiration.
We knew that the group we sought to engage were likely to be experiencing high levels of stress during lockdown, with the majority shielding. With this in mind the activities were designed to be relaxing and cathartic, drawing out interesting and sometimes invisible elements of the park’s history, and offering opportunities to improve skills. The aim was to support participants in growing their relationship with their park by offering different lenses (history, trees, people) through which to see, adding value to the everyday, increasing a sense of connectedness and wellbeing, and so leading to more engaged residents.
The workbooks were printed and sent out in a box that also included paints, colouring pencils, seeds, biscuits, postage stamps, disposable cameras and more: everything the participant might need to complete the exercises without having any materials already at home. Matching the contents of the workbook, we designed a series of seven weekly online workshops where the participants would meet online, to deliver on the project’s vital social aspirations. We knew that not everyone would want to or be able to join online, so the workbooks were designed so they could equally be completed independently, supplemented with (optional) telephone calls from Katy to discuss the material.
Recruitment and selection of participants
Participants were sourced through the consultations described above, resulting in referrals from MIND, AGE UK, Mutual Aid Groups, charities, faith groups, community centres, dementia services, carer support services and Council services in Haringey, Islington and Hackney. The project was promoted to more than 60 local groups, shared on Facebook community groups, via twitter, through partners newsletters and online listings.
The participant group
Workbooks and packs were posted out to 25 people across the three boroughs, of whom 17 signed up for the seven-week programme of online workshops.
Out of the 17:
- 14 participants joined with video via laptops and phones
- 2 joined via landlines, participating via voice only, and
- 1 joined via another participant, via phone
Of the 14 who joined online:
- 3 were residents in a Haringey care home, with a centre manager facilitating their involvement
- 2 participants joined with carers (family members), and
- the rest participated individually from home
The participants all self-defined as older, with and without dementia, and many with mental health disabilities to varying degrees of severity. Many had never used the internet or used online video and chat.
For those joining by phone alone, we printed out any workshop presentations and sent them in the post to aid their better understanding and participation. Because of the nature of the group, we knew it would be vital to have one-on-one phone calls before the sessions started, and also in between, to understand how it was going, to check in, and to catch up with anyone who had to miss a session.
The online sessions provided an opportunity for socialising between participants. They also offered opportunities to improve skills, and to share.
We invited formative feedback throughout, so that we could adapt the delivery of the workshops to better suit individual needs. This was especially important due to the nature of the group and their varying vulnerabilities.
The first session was spent planting seeds (using the seeds, pot and soil provided in the pack) and getting to know each other, sharing memories and stories of Finsbury Park.
The sessions were led by Katy, who welcomed special guests to introduce different topics:
Julie Melrose of the Haringey Archive at Bruce Castle Museum delivered a presentation on the history of the park and the heritage of the postal service in Haringey. This led perfectly into that week’s activity of painting and drawing postcards inspired by the park’s history and environment.
Paul Wood, local resident and author of London’s Street Trees, hosted a virtual tree walk around the park, drawing out information about the way the park was designed and why decisions were made about which trees to plant.
Islington Faces is a unique blog that features more than 300 Islington people, celebrating and making their contributions visible. Blog founder Nicola Baird and photographer Kimi Gill joined a session to present interviews with people who have close ties to the park, including the chairman of the Finsbury Park Mosque. They then led an interactive photography session, coaching participants to take pictures of the park and park goers.
The artists Simon Poulter, 2NQ’s curator of the People and Heritage Programme, gave an online a watercolour tutorial (which is still available on the 2NQ website here), and another on drawing trees, inspired by the story of the Seven Sisters.
In the final session, each participant spent 5-10 minutes sharing a passion or interest relating to green space or parks. They spoke about their gardens, about mindfulness, recited poems and sang songs. Katy ran this as a show and tell session, knowing this would be an effective method for engaging the particiants and bringing them together.
- 25 workbooks and work packs, designed and mailed out to participants across the three boroughs, including those living in care homes
- Six online sessions for 16 older vulnerable adults and carers with and without dementia
- Sowing seeds and introductions
- Learning to water-colour, including tutorial that continues to be available on YouTube at https://youtu.be/yRylXkl2b-U.
- Virtual tree walk with Paul Wood
Paul Wood (top left) takes the group on a tree walk in the local area.
- History of Finsbury Park and postal system with Julie Melrose of the Haringey Archive
- Finsbury Park faces and photography session with Nicola Baird and Kimi Gill of Islington Faces
- Phone calls, emails and texts with participants between sessions
- Reproduction of postcards created by participants, to go into the Haringey Archive
- Partnership building in the research phase: furthering and developing relationships with local organisations, especially those involved in delivery of adult social care, local history, and the park environment
- Partnership building in the course of delivery: engaging six local groups to contribute to the delivery and informing the programme content
- Setting up a legacy:
- signposting participants to local providers, putting them in touch where requested
- connecting the group up via email
- sharing learning with local organisations
1. Skills and engagement
Skill levels, and participants’ interest in the activities that were introduced in the workbook and the sessions, were both enhanced. The programme and workbook offered prompts, support and materials for skills development in painting, poetry, identifying nature, photography and public speaking. Many participants had not engaged with any of these ever, or since childhood.
Participants were offered the opportunity to share their work in the 2NQ Photographic Exhibition, and to have the local history-inspired postcards they made during the sessions printed up. Many took up both offers.
The participants were ancouraged to develop their own, separate creative projects and share them with Katy, who supported them with stimulus, materials and developing skills. Where appropriate, participants were redirected to local groups and activities that would enable them to continue building on the skills they’d gained after the programme ended.
Participants’ wellbeing was improved through:
- Participation in the mindful, creative activities in the workbook and during the sessions, specifically colouring in, water-colour painting, mindful photography, and tree identification.
- Having an opportunity to express and to share, to be heard, especially in the final ‘sharing’ session.
Making new friends and connections, especially significant during the lockdown period. Many of the group asked to be put into email contact following the end of the programme and took us up on the option of sending postcards to other members of the group (via the 2NQ team). Having learned about each other's interests in the final session, some wanted to find out more and get involved, for example in community garden schemes.
- Providing a positive focus through the lockdown period
3. Knowledge and appreciation of the area
Improved knowledge and appreciation for the local area were facilitated by the content of the workbook and the stories presented by the speakers and facilitators. In addition:
Encouraged by weekly challenges set by the facilitator, participants did their own additional research into the park, both online and by taking walks to the park to observe historical features introduced, or to hone their skills in identifying trees. The process was further supported by connecting with local organisations such as Bruce Castle Museum and Islington Faces, with participants following through to make direct contact.
4. Inspiring new activity
Professionals and others associated with the participant group, including the care home and the older people’s network, have gone on to organise further activities inspired by the programme.
The care home centre manager is hosting a music sharing session and two participants from the care home now lead their own regular art club. Hornsey Lane Estate is planning to take workbooks to the park for picnics with elders, as a stimulus for learning and activities to guide the visit.
An evaluation form included in the workbooks asked participants to rate each session as Excellent, Very Good, Good, Satisfactory or Poor – and then asked a range of questions to find out what did and didn’t work, as outlined below.
Participants were asked to email their answers, or request a phone call to give their feedback verbally.
Photographs were taken of sessions with permission from the participants.
All participants were given disposable cameras in packs, partly to enable a mindful photography activity and partly to encourage self-documenting of the sessions and the process.
Tell us how we did
Of 37 individual responses on the sessions received, 28 said Excellent, 7 very good and 2 good.
Words used to describe the sessions included:
Restful, Inspiring, Enjoyable, Fun, Interesting, Mindful, Creative
Would you recommend Safe Space to a friend?
All participants said they would recommend Safe Space to friends.
“Yes I would, and how good the experience was! Well and truly positive and inspirational.”
What did you enjoy most?
Participants’ comment on enjoying the whole experiencing, from start to finish, included:
“The course was really enjoyable. I loved the feeling of a journey over the six weeks, exploring Finsbury Park, learning new things, meeting new people online.”
“The moment you got in touch, everything was brilliant. i enjoyed everything. I can't pick out anything. I enjoyed all things, start to finish”
They remarked on how the programme and activities inspired them to create and to make, when they often find it hard to, or that they never have, or never do make time for that, and how the course gave the opportunity to grow skills:
“I loved learning about painting and drawing online and found the motivation to draw in my own time at home, something I’ve never been able to do until now.”
“Doing the art in between, having the things here just handy for me. It was amazing as I don't get motivated to do much work normally, so it really helped me.”
One participant, who had not painted since school, painted a birthday card for his daughter that he shared with the project manager.
Participants noted how they were inspired by other people in the group, as well as by the facilitators:
“I loved hearing others’ stories and passions”
“I loved seeing other people’s stuff and hearing their stories - brought back some memories of the area and provided things to look up/into.”
Many remarked how they now see the park differently:
“I never took any notice before. Now I look [at trees].”
“It really helped me reconnect with the park… You have really inspired me to learn more about aspects of the park that I hadn't paid attention to before.”
“[You introduced] lots of interesting ideas and aspects of the park. I learned a lot that I didn't know and felt enthused by it all.”
Participants commented on how interactive the sessions were, enabling people to contribute in different ways:
“Of all the zoom groups I have participated in this was most interactive and structured I got a lot out of it. Coffee and chat is good, but having something to do / share is even better and gives everyone a chance to participate.”
Participants commented on the importance of receiving a parcel and work pack during lockdown. They noted the unifying effect of all having the same materials, specifically the workbook and the joy of watching the seed grow:
“I loved the workbook and it was so lovely to receive a present of materials in the post. My nasturtium has 10 leaves!”
“I loved the workbook. Something about having that made me feel connected. Having the whole package was really so lovely. All the materials, the seeds, the camera.”
Another feature was improving people's mood during lockdown, offering a positive point of focus and providing an opportunity to come together and share with other people during a period of social isolation:
“It gave me something to look forward to during lockdown.”
“We have achieved stamina, endurance, self-worth, happiness, and good friends to keep in touch.”
“I so enjoyed the whole thing, it helped me with a lot at the time.”
“[One of the best things was] having interaction on Zoom with other people, even those that were unsure. [Participant Y] was inspired by meeting different people and getting to know them over the six weeks.”
Participants and carers felt cared for and supported; the programme had located an audience who needed and appreciated the offer:
“I think we both enjoyed the fact that the activities existed and it made me feel like someone other than my family actually cared about my dad’s health condition.”
During the development phase of the project we had received numerous positive emails from dementia and wellbeing charities, in response to having reached out to promote the programme, saying how glad they were this was happening and how necessary.
Perceived benefits particular to the participating care home included:
1. Bringing the residents together for communal activity.
“We do things, but they tend to just sit and not interact particularly. [The programme succeeded in] getting them round the table and having a look at what each other were doing and having a bit of banter, even ones who were not participating and just sat behind."
2. The care centre manager went on to organise activities inspired by the programme, having realised that residents were more able than previously thought.
“It has inspired [us] to think about other things as there was such a positive reaction to this programme. We have now set up a music group where they listen to music from one another’s cultures - Turkish etc. Now we are thinking of other things they might enjoy. They have got used to this kind of interaction and now we know they can do more.”
3. One resident with dementia and mental health needs grew in stamina and engagement:
“In the first session Participant X became despondent after 10 mins. At week 3 he started getting into the routine and by the final session he was alright the whole way through.”
What didn’t work for you?
For residents at the care home residence the session length (1.25-1.5 hours) was too long:
“Hour and a half was a bit long. Hour would be good.”
One participant did not enjoy being muted during presentations:
“Being muted when facilitators were talking, unable to express my ideas to people who were talking.”
More time at the start was suggested to allow for late arrivals:
“I think because people started at slightly different times it felt a bit chaotic… I missed some and it felt the sessions had already started when I joined them.”
Using Zoom video conferencing, whilst potentially “good enough” in the situation, was not ideal:
“Video conferencing is not the best way to meet/interact with new people but given that we had no choice I would still recommend it.”
“I found Zoom a bit stressful, although I am aware that it is probably one of the best options.”
At the end of one session, a participant was muted and could not say goodbye:
“I didn't have the chance to say goodbye”
One participant’s seed did not sprout, another’s died:
“My seeds didn't come up. [My partner] was very very caring towards his seedling, but it died and he was quite upset.”
How did the facilitators do?
Words and phrases used to describe the facilitators included:
“The facilitators were amazing”
“All brilliant 10/10”
Excellent, Brilliant, Inspiring, Generous, Inclusive, Kind
Many remarked on how the facilitators ensured everyone was included, and how they went ‘the extra mile’ to adapt to participants’ needs, both during the sessions and also after, in signposting people to further relevant activity and information:
“The facilitators were very inspiring, very attentive, provided lots of variety: speaking, art, writing, allowing everyone to shine. Their passion: for people; Finsbury Park; open spaces; and learning, were very motivating. They were generous and thoughtful, going the extra mile to provide options. The facilitators cheered me during despondent days of lockdown, and provided resources for ongoing activities on several different levels, both the continuing of activities explored during the course, and in the form of relevant signposting to related, new activities.”
“Very good, lots of patience and tried to be inclusive following up with people on individual basis.”
“Very helpful and kind. Plus gave us interesting information.”
“The whole experience was just really great to be a part of.”
One participant felt that one of the external presenters spoke for too long without giving an opportunity to ask questions:
“In the presentations they talked too long without us being able to butt into the conversation - for us to interpret the work they presented.”
What can we do next?
All participants said they would like to join for another iteration of the programme if we ran it.
All participants said they would like to meet together in the park once it is well and safe to do so.
Lots said ‘more of the same’:
“Could do more along the same lines – painting/colouring, guest speakers. Finsbury Park and surrounding area is large and has lots of points of interest, especially if you keep the arty/crafty stuff going. Also on my walk I noticed that the park has a community garden … that may be of interest to local people.”
“It would be good if there could be more similar type of activity courses like this one, especially in winter when other things become more difficult. Even if it was just the art aspects of learning different art skills and then trying to use them to create stuff, I saw how engaging my dad found it.”
“Do it again. I'd love to do a similar thing again.”
“Have another one as soon as possible.”
“Maybe we could research an aspect of the park at Bruce Castle records office.”
Two participants, having spoken highly of the programme to the support workers at MIND who referred them, have enquired on behalf of MIND about us delivering an online arts workshop for other users of the service.
Haringey Council mental health staff, hearing how the programme helped people, have been in touch about future iterations, wanting to signpost their clients to it.
Arts organisations have been in touch, hearing of the success of the project and wanting to learn from it.
Analysis of the results
1. Assumptions that were proved right
The care delivered before, during and in between sessions via phone, text and email was a vital factor in nurturing an open space and keeping the group together.
- The extra communication before, during and in between session through one-on-one phone calls, emails and texts between the 2NQ team and participants was shown to be crucial, with high levels of trust developed prior to the start of the sessions. This created a high level of intimacy and helped nurture an open, safe space which saw people share thoughts about mental health, prejudices, grief, as well as joys, passions and the art they were producing. It was especially necessary to make time to speak with those participants who were joining via landline telephone alone, to check in on how they were finding this and how we could make their experience better.
The physical assets, particularly the workbook and the planting seed, helped to unify participants and created moments of togetherness.
- The unifying kit of the workbook, seeds, paints, camera and biscuits was fundamental to the success of the project. This ensured that participants had shared points of reference, a crucial factors while they were physically apart. Planting the seeds in our separate places, but having them grow within a shared timespan, worked particularly well in creating moment of togetherness when people shared news of how their plant was doing, or showing it on screen.
- The seeds grew as the group did, and many participants emailed pictures throughout to share their plant’s development. Sadly, two participants’ seeds did not sprout or survive. In future iterations of the programme we will consider sending two pots, or forewarning participants more clearly at the outset that this can happen.
People sharing their skills and passions is a successful tool for creating groups of trust and opportunities for development.
- People value being able to share their passions and interests with one another, sharing and listening. This only worked as we had successfully built a community of trust, not only over the six weeks but also with all the preparatory work before. As a result, people who were nervous at the beginning, or who had never spoken publicly and faced multiple challenges, found themselves able and willing to share. This points to the importance of slowness in the delivery of such a project and getting to know people over time.
Meaning and emotional connection accrues when you get to know more about your local places.
- The programme supported participants in strengthening their relationship to place by offering different lenses through which to observe and interact. The various prompts and presentations – about trees, local history, photography – led many participants to go on their own exploratory walks and doing some private research into the history of their place and the nature found there, to get inspiration from their everyday environment. Participants remarked positively about having “reconnected” and “looking again”. Carers noted that taking their loved ones on walks prompted by the sessions, and exploring through the various lenses, was an accessible and bonding activity.
2. Lessons learned
Joining in through voice calls alone, as some participants did, presented particular challenges.
- A great deal of effort is required to make a session work in a way that works for those joining only by voice phone, as compared with those who also use videoconferencing. Posting out presentations and other visual materials (in addition to the work packs) did help, but it could not fully close the gap. The phone-based participants did find ways to share their work, via post or emails outside the session, but they were unable to share their work live, as others did.
It is hard to meet everyone’s needs within the format.
- The participants were a group with mixed, different and sometimes conflicting needs. Some needed the sessions to be simple, clear, without interruption; for them it felt right that participants were muted during the presentations. Others wanted to chat and engage verbally at each stage, including during presentations; for them being muted was negative.
- In a future iteration of the programme it may be worth trying out running separate formats for different groups: one unmuted, encouraging free-flowing conversation focused on the interaction between participants, the other comprising demonstrations and presentations with a more structured approach to questions, focusing more on upskilling and learning.
A ‘Zoom Tips’ sheet with instructions about videoconferencing would be useful for when participants first join.
- The participant who remarked that they had been unable to say goodbye at the end of a session could have been resolved this by unmuting themselves. Instructions on how to do this had been given, but given the nature of the group it might have enhanced participation further if we had reiterated those each session, or provided tips on a digital or physical ‘how to’ sheet.
The workbook, together with the formats devised for the sessions, can be effective tools to support and inspire carers and professionals in management or coordinator roles to try out new models for engagement.
- The care home engaged in the project had initially planned not to take part in the videoconference sessions but to receive the packs only. In the event, the manager decided to give the online sessions a try. Having seen that all four participants in the home enjoyed a positive experience (both individually, with each going on their own journey and taking something different from it, and collectively, enjoying the opportunity to share work and to engage in banter), care home staff have since begun organising their own weekly groups focused on music. Two participants from the group have gone on organise their own ad hoc art sessions, using the materials provided in the work pack. The sessions showed the manager that more was possible, and this gave them the confidence to organise their own.
- The older people's network coordinator at Hornsey Lane Estate referred four older people who wanted to receive the packs via post. The coordinator also received a pack themselves, as they had expressed interest in organising a picnic for the group to the park, taking the workbook along as stimulus for a group learning and creative activity.
- Similarly, individual carers fed back via email and through the evaluation how they'd gone on to use the workbook as inspiration for more one-on-one activities, such as name-the-trees walks, painting together, learning more about the local area and more.
This was the right group to focus on.
- The decision to focus on this group – older people, people with dementia, and carers – proved well-founded, as shown in the responses received and the demand for more, notwithstanding the barriers of dealing with the internet and new technologies, or not knowing the facilitators before the course started.
- This group is, and continues to be, in need. Despite much anecdotal comment to the contrary received beforehand they have shown themselves willing to try out new technologies, particularly with the promise of socialising opportunities, new skills and knowledge about their shared local area.
3. Pertinent question remaining
Most members of this group would not have participated in a project like this in normal circumstances. With all the group now keen to meet in the park once it is safe to do so, we are interested in how ‘slow’ (virtual/posted/phone-based) engagement can be a precursor to meaningful ‘real life’ contact.
4. Effects of the pandemic
The coronavirus pandemic required us to rethink the whole programme, and to keep adapting to the changing situation, observing best practice as it was being developed and recorded.
This resulted in a completely redesigned way of delivering the project: a variation on co-production that placed the emphasis on facilitators of local groups, more than the participants themselves, playing an active role in supporting the development of the project idea and shape.
While we may have lost some people by changing the programme from the real world to online and post, we also gained some, specifically the care home residents, who due to mental health and care needs would not have been able to attend sessions in the park.
Little or no access to arts and heritage were the main reasons we wanted to work with vulnerable adults. In the event these factors were amplified, as were the outcomes, with this group, making the project and its aims even more vital. Increasing people’s interest in parks, neighbourhoods, and familiar places at a time when mobility was compromised during the pandemic made the programme even more relevant, with participants keen to explore the familiar while also engaging in creative, therapeutic and distracting activity. That people had more time on their hands was one reason they were able to give more of themselves to the process.