It’s a little after 1.30pm on a Wednesday and a crowd has gathered outside the Rio cinema in Dalston, east London. The first film of the day will not start for another hour, but regulars to the monthly classic matinee are eager to grab their favourite seats.
The matinee is aimed at the community’s senior citizens and all the screenings are dementia-friendly. Cinemagoers are greeted warmly by the familiar faces of the Rio’s staff, who take their orders for tea, coffee and cake – all free with the £2 ticket.
The auditorium is adapted to be as calming and comfortable as possible. Seats can be removed to make space for wheelchairs, lights are dimmed so people can move around, the volume is slightly lower, and chatting or singing along is not met by pleas for silence.
For some visitors, this is their one trip out in the month, says Emma Houston, duty and community manager at the Rio Dalston.
“We don’t open the doors this early for other screenings, but they like to come early to chat and meet each other,” Houston adds. With 40% of the 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK saying they feel lonely [pdf], community events such as this are crucial.
The screenings began in 1983 as the Hackney Pensioners Project, and eventually became the Classic Matinee in 1990. Aimed at older residents, the needs of those with dementia have always been at the forefront of programming.
“The idea for people with dementia, is that they recover their childhood memories through cinema, so the Hackney Pensioners Project started with classic Hollywood movies,” says Houston.
Today, with a different generation in the audience, the Rio shows movies from the 60s and 70s as well as newer comedies, dramas and family films – anything that’s uplifting and easy to watch.
The Rio has also developed links with care homes in the area and residents have been invited to watch this month’s matinee of Steel Magnolias.
“One resident we brought in today is partially-sighted so she’s been able to talk all the way through, asking questions about what’s going on,” says Vanessa Edwards, a lifestyle coordinator at Lennox House care home in Islington. “Another resident, who is usually not that quiet, has been engrossed the whole time. I think seeing Dolly Parton on the screen has taken her back to years before.”
Recalling memories is not unusual in a place like the Rio. The art deco building is more than 100 years old and the auditorium has barely changed in that time. “Last year, a woman who hadn’t been since she was a child came to one of the screenings,” says Houston. “We took her up to the circle and as soon as the lights went down, she burst into tears. She remembered coming to the Saturday morning kids’ club when she was young.”
The Rio’s screening is just one of many across the UK this month as part of World Alzheimer’s Month.
“Dementia-friendly events are growing and we know there are pockets of activity in cinemas across the UK. We wanted to bring all that together and mark the significant change in how people with dementia can experience cinema,” says Hana Lewis, strategic manager of Film Hub Wales, one of nine BFI Film Audience Network hubs providing dementia-friendly guidance, training and support to cinema operators.
Alongside dementia-friendly screenings, cinemas across the UK are hosting reminiscence therapy activities, such as memory walks, guided tours and opportunities to handle special objects such as photographs, old coins and ticket stubs.
The most fundamental way cinemas can provide a dementia-friendly space is in the way staff interact with the audience and their carers.
“Making sure cinema staff support people before they arrive is really important; reassuring them about the facilities available, such as accessible toilets, changing places and available parking,” says Emma Bould, programme partnerships project manager at Dementia Friends.
At the Rio, front of house staff are aware that one person’s journey through the cinema might be different to someone else’s. “They know not to rush people, to make sure they talk to the older person directly rather than to their carer,” says Houston. “They know not to assume that people either need help or don’t need help.”
“Any cinema can pick it up and get guidance on reaching isolated people with dementia,” says Bould. The guide, launching next month, will also be part of the Film Audience Network’s upcoming online portal, aiming to build a wider, more diverse UK cinema audience. It will pull together toolkits from cinemas across the UK on ways to include anyone who might feel marginalised, unrepresented or unable to access cinema.
The Rio hopes to open up the cinema to more people in the area, and is fundraising to create a second, 30-seat screen to host additional community events. “We could organise more regular or specialised screenings – perhaps something directly with the Alzheimer’s Society for smaller groups of people,” says Houston. “There’s lots more we can do.”
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