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How to make museums accessible to people with dementia

According to the latest review of data, there are some 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK. Globally, this devastating disease affects more than 55 million people worldwide, with almost 10 million new cases diagnosed every year according to the latest research from the World Health Organisation (WHO). And this figure is expected to increase dramatically in the coming years as more and more countries face the challenges that come with an ageing population.

Even in its mildest form, dementia can have a major impact on daily life, a fact that makes finding and accessing support early particularly important. While there’s no cure for dementia, therapy and self-care remain effective tools for managing the condition and supporting more independent lives. Indeed, awareness surrounding the benefits of social prescribing alongside traditional clinical care has grown rapidly in recent years.

With the right programmes in place, museums and galleries can reach out to ensure community engagement, accessibility and appropriate support for people with dementia. Often this involves the provision of tools, techniques and therapy aids that can be utilised by families and carers.

Dementia-friendly arts and culture programmes can provide safe spaces for people with the condition, incorporating activities that are specifically designed for maximum engagement and enjoyment. This serves to stimulate cognitive skills with meaningful interactions that are life-enhancing for people suffering from dementia.

Breaking down barriers with understanding

Training is essential to improving accessibility credentials and ensuring that dementia-friendly provision is in place. Dementia sufferers face many challenges, particularly when it comes to communication, memory, mood, emotions, and behaviour. This can be daunting to museum staff not equipped to handle any unexpected or volatile situations that arise due to these common symptoms, which is why training should always be provided alongside dementia-friendly projects or initiatives.

Staff training should also recognise the importance of empowering people with dementia and easing any fears or nervousness they might feel. Even something as simple as a meet and greet with visitors can have a powerfully positive impact in making those with dementia feel comfortable and at ease.

A great example of an institution looking to reduce the stigma surrounding dementia is Epping Forest District Museum. In partnership with the Wellcome Collection, the museum is bringing a very intimate view of ageing and dementia to their visitors with the exhibition Georgie Meadows: Stitched Drawings. It is hoped that this initiative will serve to break down barriers and increase understanding amongst staff and visitors alike.

Bringing the past to life

In recent years, museums have trialled and tested a broad range of initiatives designed to be dementia friendly. From light therapy to counselling, massage to cognitive behavioural therapy, cultural institutions are constantly looking at how they can cater for a vulnerable audience and complement clinical care. Undoubtedly one of the most successful treatments deployed in museums, however, is reminiscence therapy.

Reminiscence therapy has long been proven to benefit the wellbeing of people living with dementia. By looking back to memorable periods in the past, sufferers can improve their self-esteem, lower stress levels, boost communication, and enhance their overall quality of life in the present. What better place to complete reminiscence therapy than in a museum?

The Museum of London’s Memories of London Programme does just that. Providing on-site and outreach activities, the dementia-friendly museum gives sufferers the resources and support they need to connect to their history and enrich their everyday lives. Participants share and listen to stories, and use museum collections creatively to spark memories.

The National Museums Liverpool is another institution to take up the dementia challenge. Their award-winning House of Memories awareness programme provides resources (including the revolutionary reminiscence suitcases) and museum-led activities based on reminiscence work to help individuals live well with dementia.

Reminiscence projects like these have been pioneering in their approach to improving museum accessibility for people with dementia.

A bigger part to play in dementia awareness

The truth is that museums have a wealth of assets at their disposal when it comes to supporting dementia care. The question is not if they can be made accessible to sufferers of the disease but how to grow their role in supporting carers, families, and the health and social care sector in making a tangible and long-term difference in this valuable field.

Interested in learning more about how museums are making a difference to the health and wellbeing of the communities that they serve? The Museums, Health & Wellbeing Summit is a two day virtual event that will bring together leading museum thinkers to share their ideas and experience. The conference will take place 6 – 7 February 2023, and can be watched live or on-demand after the event.

About the author – Tim Deakin

Tim Deakin is a journalist and editorial consultant working with a broad range of online publications.

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