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Alzheimer’s and the museum

Alzheimer’s and the museum

​As a nation we are living longer. The goal posts of retirement are forever moving and effects of old age begin to impact on our lives. In 2015, over 850,000 people in the UK were living with dementia, with this forecasted to rise to 1 million by 2025.* Dementia covers a variety of symptoms from memory loss and confusion, to communication difficulties, for which Alzheimer’s is the most common cause.

The traditional role of a museum is to conserve and preserve objects, so that they can be enjoyed and engaged with, fostering a connection with the past. As their role and purpose has evolved, a community focus on health and wellbeing has developed. They now play a key part in reconnecting the lost memories of their visitors, running sessions to aid reminiscence through different activities and sensory stimulation.

Triggers, whether objects, photos, sights and smells, are tangible resources that can generate reactions, whether physical or emotional. For me a particular brand of talcum powder reminds me of my late Grandma and playing at her dressing table as a child. These personal connections and stimuli can help to reactivate dormant memories.

Heritage sites are adopting different practices to help unlock memories, both on site and also through outreach programmes. Handling sessions can allow participants to develop their own interpretations of objects and the multi-sensory engagement can have therapeutic benefits. Themed loan boxes, utilising museum collections and donations, provide opportunities not only to reminisce but also to have a dual purpose by being an educational tool linked to the National Curriculum. The Royal Academy of Arts offers a variety of regular access events tailored to different audiences, including a session for those with dementia, offering art workshops and discussions.

Many museums, along with supporting charities, encourage the production of personalised memory boxes. In the digital age that we now live in, Liverpool Museums have developed an app, House of Memories. It allows an individual to create their own digital memory box, utilising objects from the consortiums collection or uploading their own personal items. The benefit of an online or app based resource, is the portable nature of the product, whether a phone or tablet and the ease to update and adapt, allowing the museum, its collection and services, to reach beyond their four walls.

I have been fortunate to be able to volunteer at the Reminiscence Tea Room run by Mansfield Museum. Their free, monthly social event, is not only for people affected by memory loss, but also their family and friends. The event can provide an escape from isolation, a source of conversation and the opportunity to reminisce. There are also cakes provided, as well as tea served in china cups with saucers, highlighting the level of detail that the Museum places into its session, when considering its audience.

I met one local woman who talked to me about the history of Mansfield (being new to the area this information was invaluable) and when discussing her family she wondered about the origin of a word related to her father’s work, “puddler.”** I felt I benefited just as much from the session as those attending, highlighting the importance of dialogue for health and wellbeing, keeping the body and mind active, as well as inquisitive.

One of the projects I will be supporting the development of is a loan box that looks at the effect of music on memory. Adopting a similar framework to the tea room sessions, objects and activities will allow participants to reminisce and generate discussions. This idea stems from a handling session with the My Sight Mansfield group. The loan box will be adaptable and have multiple sensory engagement points, to be accessible for a broad audience.
Where possible, dementia focused museum practices should be integrated within everyday operations, ensuring they are proactive, and not reactive, in long term engagement with this audience, as these changes can also benefit a broader audience.

*Alzheimer’s Society: About Dementia (https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/site/scripts/documents_info.php?documentID=341)

**For those who like to channel their inner Susie Dent like myself, “puddlers” were workers in iron manufacture. The puddlers would hammer the pig iron from the puddling furnace to remove any impurities, which would weaken the iron once set.

In 2017, Mansfield Museum will be running their Reminiscence Tea Room from 2.30pm-4.00pm on the following dates:

  • Wednesday 18th January
  • Wednesday 22nd February
  • Wednesday 22nd March
  • Wednesday 19th April
  • Wednesday 17th May
  • Wednesday 21st June

More dates will be scheduled and released for the remainder of year later on in 2017. For more information, contact Sally Evans, Community Participation Officer: sevans@mansfield.gov.uk

By Anne-Marie Rooney, Resilience Syndicate Intern at Mansfield Museum

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