Designing Museum Programmes for People with Dementia
September 21 2021
By Charlotte Coates
Dementia has an impact on many people worldwide. 47.5 million people globally are living with some form of the condition. In the United States, there are around five million people living with age-related dementia. It’s estimated that one out of every ten men living past the age of 55 will develop the condition. For women, the figure rises to one out of every six.
The condition happens when diseases such as Alzheimer’s, or a series of strokes cause damage to the brain. Symptoms can include memory loss and confusion. They can often start small. However, they can then progress into difficulties with thinking, problem-solving or language. People with dementia can struggle with everyday tasks. They may also experience changes in mood and behaviour. Symptoms can change from person to person, and there are different types of dementia.
Dementia is not always visible. This can mean that sometimes people with the condition are treated as if they are being disruptive when they are in public. For example, if they are struggling to handle coins or to follow instructions. They can appear confused or even aggressive. This is why understanding and being aware of dementia is important. Cultural institutions such as museums have an important role to play in dementia awareness and education. They can also serve as safe spaces and can run a variety of activities. Within museums, people with dementia can enjoy programmes tailored to their needs.
The Art Museums Working with People with Dementia
Image: MAC Australia
Australia’s Museum of Contemporary Art created an art therapy programme called Artful. It was a research programme that ran between March 2016 and October 2018. During that time, 67 people with dementia and 57 care partners took part. The aim was to explore whether creative art programmes can enhance wellbeing in people living with dementia.
The study was robust and took place over three years. It included around 50 pre- and post-interviews with participants. During the programme, groups of six to eight people came to the MCA along with their carers. They attended twice a week for five sessions over a ten-week period. As part of the sessions, they got involved in hands-on art experiences. The MCA also created Artful at Home packs. These were for participants to extend the experience outside the scheduled visits. The packs included materials and simple instructions. This means that participants could add art to their home routines too. One group member said, “Love the experience of coming to the museum so much- it makes me so happy to be here and so taking something away home with me meant that I was taking some of that happy feeling away with me.”
Participants responded well to the art programme. But it also had an impact on their caregivers. The sessions gave them an opportunity to step back from their care role and get involved in making art too. Michelle Heldon and Gill Nicol from the MCA spoke to MuseumNext about the project. They were keen to highlight the impact on the carers. “Their active engagement in the program meant that the program was also a valuable experience for them. The experience brought hope to the care partners, they saw new ways to connect and were delighted in the surprise of the new skills and memories being built.”
Dementia Awareness Workshops in the Museum
House of Memories is a museum-led dementia awareness programme. It offers resources and training, as well as museum-based activities. It highlights the fact that “museums are experts at recording and caring for people’s memories”. The programme builds on this knowledge and experience. It aims to support carers and promote person-centred care. House of Memories is part of National Museums Liverpool. Since its creation, it has provided training to health, social care and housing professionals. House of Memories also works with family carers.
Image: National Museums Liverpool
A dementia diagnosis can be scary for people when they don’t know much about the condition. One key service provided by House of Memories is dementia awareness workshops. These take place throughout the year. They are tailored to family members, friends, and community volunteers. The sessions provide an overview of dementia. Participants explore the challenges of living with dementia through personal stories. They also learn about practical approaches to caring for someone who has dementia.
House of Memories has also created an innovative app that people can use together. It lets users explore objects and share memories. It has images of items from across history. For example, cinema tickets, a Singer sewing machine and a ten-shilling note. It also includes sounds and music to bring these pictures to life. The app features a digital memory tree. This is where users can upload their own personal photos and memories.
Making Art Accessible to those with Demetia
The Museum of Modern Art in New York runs Meet Me at MoMA. This interactive programme takes place every month. It allows people with dementia to discuss and react to art in the gallery. It also gives them a chance to create their own art, alongside their carers. Trained museum staff lead the sessions. These events foster a sense of community in the participants.
The museum is committed to accessibility and to providing services for people with dementia. Between 2007 and 2014 it worked on expanding the Meet Me at MoMA format. The MoMA Alzheimer’s project included the development of new resources. MoMA has created tools that are now available for many people who cater to those with dementia. This includes museums, assisted-living facilities, and other community organizations. The aim is to make art, and the benefits of art, accessible to people living with the condition.
The project will have long-term benefits. According to the museum, “MoMA staff will continue to provide resources, information, and advice to other organizations and to facilitate training workshops locally, nationally, and abroad. We are poised to maintain our role as a connector in this field- to serve as a hub for conversations on ageing and creativity and to provide a vital link for colleagues around the world who are interested in making art accessible to people with dementia.”
Dementia Friendly Museum Activities
One UK museum has been working to become more dementia friendly. The Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery runs a project called “Living Each Season”. This is a series of creative activities, gallery tours and object-handling sessions. The programme is for people living with dementia, as well as their carers. The sessions have themes based on the seasons, exploring nature and a wide range of artefacts. They are designed to be engaging for people from any cultural background, at any age.
Many dementia programmes deal with the topics of memory and remembrance. However, the focus of this project is the present. RAMM says the programme follows the attitude of 19th-century American philosopher and nature writer Henry David Thoreau. He wrote, “Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each.” Each session focuses on the current season. For instance, spring conversations may focus on flower patterns and stuffed birds. Winter sessions could look at cosy textiles or the Arctic. Each object can spark new conversations and feelings. Carrie Clarke is an occupational therapist at the nearby NHS Franklyn Hospital. “It’s about tapping into what people can do rather than what they can’t,” she says.
Museums working in partnership
Museum professionals are experts in their own fields but don’t necessarily have in-depth knowledge of dementia. Working with dementia specialists will help them to get the most out of their programmes. Ten museums across Minnesota and Wisconsin worked with the Alzheimer’s Association to offer Spark! This is a cultural programme which aims to get people involved in art. It also works to create a supportive community.
The programme includes interactive activities, including object handling and other multi-sensory experience. Trained staff lead the sessions. These facilitators encourage conversation and provide a welcoming and fun environment. The sessions are designed to keep people with dementia active and social. They attend alongside their caregivers who can enjoy the activities too.
The Milwaukee Public Museum is one of the institutions offering the programme. Dawn Koceja is the Curator of Education at the museum. Speaking about the sessions she says, “Just because somebody has been categorised as having Alzheimer’s, doesn’t mean that they are sitting in a bed or in a wheelchair. It’s all about staying actively engaged in your community and being a part of the community.”
Design Museum Experiences for people with Dementia
Heidi Benham is from the Royal College of Art in London. She spoke at MuseumNext Indianapolis about designing museum experiences for people with dementia. Benham says, “through sympathetic and creative design methods, museums have the opportunity to create truly engaging spaces making time for reflection, for feeling and for a sense of connectivity.”
There are many different factors that can ensure spaces are accessible and welcoming. Museums need to take into account physical aspects such as furniture, doors and general layouts. In addition to this, they need to be conscious of the impact of decoration and colour choices.
Benham talks about how the use of colour can change how people perceive a room. Warm colours having the ability to make spaces seem more welcoming. Yellow, for instance, can stimulate conversation and create friendly-seeming space. Even the type of paint is important, as non-reflective paint works to reduce glare. Contrast and clarity should be used in signage and control buttons. People need to be able to find facilities such as toilets and lifts with ease. This gives them the confidence to navigate in unfamiliar spaces. Benham advocates getting advice from a dementia specialist. She also suggests involving people who are living with the condition and their carers in the design process.
Worldwide, almost 50 million people have dementia. There are up to 10 million new cases every year. There are many ways that museums can work with people who are living with the condition. Projects can include reminiscence projects and art therapy. Museums also need to train staff in dementia awareness. Well-designed spaces and programmes can ensure that museums are welcoming and accessible.
Charlotte Coates is a Brighton based writer working extensively in the arts and cultural spaces. Charlotte has explored a wide range of museum related subjects since she started writing for MuseumNext in early 2019.