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How Museums Are Helping People With Memory Loss

Serving the community means changing museum offerings for guests with Alzheimer's

People view a painting at the Altes Museum in Germany. As populations age and address various health challenges, museums are increasingly tailoring their programming to better serve their patrons. (Atlantide Phototravel/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Alzheimer’s disease affects one of every nine Americans age 65 or older, and some experts estimate that this number will double by 2050. As more and more people develop memory loss, individuals are finding creative ways to help those afflicated. One of these unlikely places? Museums.

As Sharyn Jackson reports for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, museums and other cultural museums throughout Minnesota are developing programming for people with memory loss. These guided museum tours use artwork and other sensory input to help stimulate long-term memory retention among patrons.

Jayna Hintz, curator of education at the Woodson Art Museum, says that she has seen how the programing has helped some participants deal with feelings of isolation and depression caused by the onset of Alzheimer's. "During a recent visit, one participant rose from his wheelchair to dance with me, displaying deft footwork," Hintz writes.

In total, ten museums throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin are incorporating this new programming run through SPARK!, which works in partnership with the Alzheimer’s Association to create “meaningful experiences for older adults with dementia and their caregivers.” SPARK! uses grant funds from the Helen Bader Foundation to initiate intimate conversations about pieces of art, as well as form classes in painting and dance. The programs are designed to get people with memory loss into museums, as well as give their caretakers a much-needed cultural break.

Minnesota’s programs are modeled after a renowned initiative at the Museum of Modern Art, which created training resources and cultural programming for people with memory loss between 2007 and 2014. This trend of using museums to help people with memory loss engage with art has since spread to museums all over the United States.

Do museums and health care go together? Absolutely, says the American Alliance of Museums. “As society has changed, so has the work of museums,” they write in a paper about how museums are addressing health issues like Alzheimer’s, autism, mental health and even nutrition. Patrons may have challenges with short-term memory, but that doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy—and benefit from—an afternoon at an art museum.

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