What is Dementia?
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke defines dementia as “the loss of cognitive functioning, which means the loss of the ability to think, remember, or reason, as well as behavioral abilities, to such an extent that it interferes with a person’s daily life and activities.” As many as 5 million people over the age of 65 may have Alzheimer’s; that doesn’t even include other forms of dementia. In order to be diagnosed with dementia a person must have two or more core mental functions impaired. These functions include memory, language skills, visual perception, and the ability to focus, reason or solve problems. 
One of the most important things to remember about people with dementia is that while Alzheimer’s makes up 60-80% of dementia cases, there are many different kinds of dementia and every person who suffers from it responds differently. Each form of dementia has different symptoms but the most common and frequent are memory loss, impaired judgment, confusion, and irritability. 
How do I engage people with dementia?
The first step in conducting a program with dementia patients is learning how they think and how to effectively communicate with them. Family Caregiver Alliance gives ten tips for communicating with persons with dementia. Their tips are geared towards communicating with a loved one but I think they can be applied to conducting a program as well. There are many types of dementia that can cause mood swings or irritability and it is important to improve communication skills to make it a less stressful experience for everyone involved. The first step, which should go without saying, is to set a positive mood. Use body language, tone, and facial expressions to be respectful and upbeat. The next step is to get and keep your audience’s attention. In a museum this could mean finding a quieter spot with fewer distractions for your audience. Use simple words and phrases- without belittling their intelligence- when conducting a program and be prepared to repeat or rephrase what you are asking. Breaking down the activity into a series of steps will make the program as a whole more manageable and easier to remember for them. People with dementia often feel anxious and are easily confused. Instead of insisting they are wrong, try to focus on what they are feeling now, as they are very real to them. They are also better able to remember things that happened 45 years ago versus things that happened 45 minutes ago. Draw on their memories, they are much more likely to respond positively and engage. 
Who has already tried this?
It is also critical to acknowledge that you may need to change your outlook on the outcomes of these programs. Fact retention and building higher knowledge may not happen but if you change the outcome to be a stronger feeling of togetherness or a stronger bond between caregiver and patient you can be much more successful.  There are several great examples of programs for people with dementia already throughout the country. The Museum of Photographic Arts has two programs including Memories at the Museum and Seniors Exploring Photography, Integrity, and Appreciation (SEPIA). Memories at the Museum has adults with dementia as well as their caregivers come in for “a discussion about the artwork to stimulate visual and verbal abilities and to spark memories”.  The Museum of Modern Art in Washington DC introduced Meet Me at MoMa in 2007 and ran until 2014. The program was a monthly interactive discussion in the galleries for people with dementia and their caregivers.  These programs were not designed to simply educate participants on the works of art or artists but to spark memories and conversations through the artwork.