How cinema can help people with dementia live a life more ordinary: the Dukes Lancaster

Posted on August 11, 2016 by Johnathan Ilott

Categories: General

Dementia friendly screenings at The Dukes
Audience members enjoying dementia-friendly screenings at The Dukes, Lancaster

In recent years, more and more cinemas UK-wide have been holding regular screenings for sufferers of dementia, their carers and family members. As we are living longer, the number of people suffering from dementia in later life is constantly increasing; by 2025, the Alzheimer’s Society estimates one million people will be living with the condition in the UK, despite inroads made by ongoing research. The emotional and physical toll of dementia is often devastating and very isolating, both for those with the condition and their loved ones, and so activities such as cinema-going that offer a change of scene, the chance to elicit and revisit memories, restful entertainment, and an opportunity to bond with others, are invaluable. Johnathan Ilott, Film Programme Manager at The Dukes in Lancaster, tells us about the pioneering initiative they undertook at their cinema and the impact it’s had on local audiences.

Singing along in the film interval brings back the woman we used to know.

On Valentines Day 2013, The Dukes held a screening of Singin In The Rain for people living with dementia and their families. It was a pilot screening for what became a new project on-going called A Life More Ordinary.

The idea came out of a three-year study undertaken by Age UK Lancashire that investigated the needs of older people in the county. One of the major findings of the report was the increasing sense of isolation experienced by older people. This issue was further compounded for people living with dementia, due to a loss of confidence and fear of going out in public. This had an impact on family relationships, too, with partners feeling less able to go out and socialise, leaving both feeling isolated.

These findings led to a partnership between us at The Dukes and Age UK Lancashire in a bid to explore the potential role of cinema and the arts in enabling people with dementia and their partners or family members to enjoy ordinary activities in everyday public spaces.

One of the ideas developed by the partnership was a tailored programme of cinema screenings which aimed to:

  • Increase feelings of involvement and reduce feelings of isolation for people attending.
  • Provide appropriate transport to support attendance at events.
  • Provide a dementia-friendly environment for patrons and their partners or family members.

Above all we wanted to offer an everyday activity in an everyday setting. Our first screening was of Singin in the Rain – we’d picked the Gene Kelly favourite as our consultation showed a strong preference for Golden Age musicals. As well as being our audience’s clear preference, musicals were considered a good choice because the narrative is carried along by the songs – many of which audiences would be familiar with whether or not they had previously seen the film.

Dementia friendly screenings at The Dukes
The Dukes’ initial consultation showed that musicals were a firm audience favourite

The initial success of this screening saw the Esme Fairbairn Foundation agree to fund an expanded six-month programme, which allowed us to reach out to a larger audience and introduce workshops. This in turn led to a longer, three-year project.

The screenings

At every dementia-friendly screening we try to strike a balance between keeping the environment as much like a regular screening as possible while also ensuring that everyone is comfortable. Before beginning the pilot we held a walk-through of the building, with the help of Age UK Lancashire staff, to uncover any access issues. As a listed building, The Dukes unfortunately has numerous such issues, but the walk-through highlighted several small but significant changes we could easily make. For example, we changed the signage on our toilet doors, which had previously relied on illustrations that weren’t really clear enough, and the layout for our menus was simplified to make them more readable.

Our staff all received dementia training as well. This was not only Front of House staff but across the board,from projectionists to finance and marketing to stage management. Before each screening we have lunch offers and Age UK staff on hand to provide support. We encourage audiences to arrive early, giving them the opportunity to socialise and for new attendees, the chance to acclimatise to the venue. During the film, the lights are on slightly and the volume is slightly reduced. For all screenings, we have an interval to break up the runtime. These intervals include entertainment – for example a sing-a-long, or for a screening of a George Formby film we had a ukulele player.

Dementia friendly screenings at The Dukes
All dementia-friendly screenings at The Dukes include an interval with added entertainment for audience members

Programming & marketing

There’s always a lot of discussion when programming the films, as we have to consider several factors. Firstly, the length of some films is simply prohibitive, and we couldn’t include several lengthy titles like The Sound of Music. One of the key aspects of the project was the setting up of a Task Group to ensure that the programme was developed in line with the needs of the audience.

This group consisted of patrons (those living with dementia), family members, general audience members as well as staff representatives. The group helped to inform our programming choices as well as giving insights into how we could further improve the audience experience.

In our marketing we state that the screenings are dementia-friendly but have always specified that the films are open to the wider cinema-going public as well, and the films are all included in our general cinema listings. This feeds back into keeping the screenings as ordinary as possible – and we’ve had audience members who don’t suffer from dementia coming just because they like the set-up and the chance to see some classics on the big screen.

On top of this, we do more targeted work with specific flyers distributed extensively across the district to older people’s groups, libraries, leisure centre’s, GP surgeries, care agencies, and key stakeholder groups, including Lancaster and Morecambe Alzheimer’s Society. We also received a lot of press attention, with local press and BBC Lancashire running stories. Its rare for a one-screen cinema in the North to get national press attention, but the project has also featured in The Guardian and on BBC 4’s Woman’s Hour.

So often people don’t know what to say to you, so to just sit there and let yourself go and have a laugh was lovely.


We were lucky to receive significant funding to support A Life More Ordinary from various organisations. Three things in particular have made this possible. Firstly, The Dukes is a mixed-arts organisation – a producing theatre as well as a cinema – and this blend of expertise and interests means we are able to develop a programme across art forms. As well as film screenings, we hold arts workshops and have produced plays that explore the themes of ageing.

Secondly, we have a strong relationship with Lancaster University which has a Centre of Ageing Research. This meant we can combine our programme of work and their research – significantly improving the evaluation of the impact of the project.

Lastly, a few years ago The Dukes invested in creating a new Business Development Role. Rather than being an added luxury this has proved crucial, because it takes time and resources to develop relationships with trusts, foundations and other funding bodies. Having someone focused on this has significantly improved our ability to write bids.

One of the organisations funding the project is Film Hub North West Central who have supported The Dukes in expanding A Life More Ordinary to five more venues in our region (Chorley Little Theatre, Wem Town Hall, Picturehouse at FACT, Liverpool, The Light Cinema in New Brighton and Ludlow Assembly Rooms).

Dementia friendly screenings at The Dukes
The screenings offer a chance for dementia sufferers to socialise, with Age UK staff on hand to support

Impact and audience feedback

The audience response to the screenings has been overwhelming positive, with many participants focusing on the relaxed atmosphere and the opportunity once again to enjoy an everyday activity without the feeling of being judged.

They’ve also had a profound effect on our staff, and many will tell you that the project is one of the most rewarding aspects of their job. The screenings have really highlighted the joys that a trip to the cinema can have, and the significance of when something we take for granted is lost.

It has been really good for us. It’s mainly from my point of view it’s just that I feel comfortable with people who have got the same sort of needs as J [her husband] because sometimes in public it can be quite hard because J can’t follow a conversation and people don’t understand and so here, I’ve got people to talk to that understand you can bounce ideas off one another and you don’t feel as isolated, you can relax.

If you’re interested to find out more about The Dukes’ project A Life More Ordinary, contact Project Manager Gil Graystone at or find Johnathan on Twitter at @thedukescinema.

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