Bringing Back Memories: Facilitating for People with Dementia

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. [1]

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. [2]

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. [3]

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. [4] 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”. [5] 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. [6] 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.







5 thoughts on “Bringing Back Memories: Facilitating for People with Dementia

  1. rachelquimby

    I thought the music-listening activity was really great. I think most of us can attest to the sort of magical powers music has to make us feel relaxed and encouraged and generally better about life, but the effects, I see, have less to do with magic and more to do with science. Huzzah! I really admire people who can find a balance between using affirming, easy-to-understand language and not patronizing or talking down to the audience. I’d love to practice it in class, actually. Dementia used to be my 4th worst nightmare, but learning about the programs that allow people with dementia to live with dignity, I feel that it is now merely my 6th worst. As troubling as the effects of dementia may be, there’s something sort of comforting about the need to boil an experience down to its essence– it sort of strips away the pretense, and becomes about the colors of the art, or the people in the pictures, or the mad rush you get from a sick guitar solo.


  2. kitsa179

    My grandmother has dementia. From my perspective, it hasn’t been easy to see a person I love fade away while still being physically present. It’s a very odd sort of thing to witness…and frankly, before this semester, I had no idea that there was anything that could be done about it. I am so grateful that those of you who are working with this audience share your experiences and research. It has expanded my perspective and offered hope in ways that you may never know.


  3. joshamaxwell

    I have never had the experience of knowing anyone with dementia, but it is always helpful to be aware of what might be going on with any prospective audience. Your presentation was enlightening and it generated thought on the subject. For me, particularly, it got me thinking on potential audiences that we might not think about all the time, and what we might do to prepare our institutions for visitors of all sorts.


  4. Patty Arteaga

    In recalling memories through listening to our favorite songs and later sharing out, that whole activity brought back a memory that I had packed away some years ago. The song I chose had no connections to this memory and I cannot pin point why this suddenly came to my heard. But it ironically involved my grandmother that suffered Parkisons disease for about 15 years. I will not get into the details, however I am replying to your post just to bring up how irreverent this memory train came to be (a song about recent memories sparking ones of the distant past), yet supplied a huge smile across my face. Now imagine how much the dementia audience can benefit from such recommendations that you brought up, especially treating their memories as “real”. If they can extract meaning from that, then whether it was real or not does not matter, just as long as this process of memories (recalling, making, recounting) is encouraged.


  5. megwilliams44

    After all of our presentations, it seemed that most of the good examples for programming for these audience groups were from art museums. While I absolutely believe in the power of art and art-making, I am also interested in other possibilities for engaging this audience. On the American Alliance of Museums website there was mention of programs for people with dementia at botanic gardens, which focus on olfactory and tactile experiences, such as making sachets.
    Science museums might also be able to engage this audience with more multi-sensory exhibitions and programming.
    I also feel like history museums could be great spaces to engage adults with dementia and memory loss. Looking at and handling objects and newspaper clippings, and even playing music from visitors’ early lives could be a really powerful way of accessing memories.
    I feel certain that there must be other existing examples of non-art museums engaging this audience. If anyone runs across any, please post!



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