With more than 800,000 people diagnosed with dementia in the UK and with numbers rising more and more museums are developing positive approaches that make them friendly and better equipped to enable those affected to benefit from their collections. “Dementia is one of the most significant challenges we face today and it is one that we as a society simply cannot afford to ignore any longer. We have made some good progress over the past few years, but there’s still a long way to go.” This is how David Cameron introduced the Prime Minister’s challenge on dementia in 2012.

According to the Alzheimer’s Society predictions, by 2015 there will be 850,000 people with dementia in the UK, with numbers set to rise to more than one million by 2025. This will soar to three million by 2050. The term dementia describes a group of symptoms that indicate a progressive cognitive decline. This includes problems with memory, thinking, reasoning, language and judgement. One in three people over 65 will live and die with dementia. One strand of the Prime Minister’s Dementia Challenge is to build dementia-friendly communities across the UK – cities, towns or villages where people with dementia are understood, respected and supported and confident they can contribute to community life. As part of this and together with a range of other cultural organisations with experience in this area, I’ve been working with the Dementia Friendly Arts Group, led by the Alzheimer’s Society, to produce a report on dementia friendly arts communities that will be published next year.

Museums and galleries are crammed full of objects and artworks of historical, social and personal significance. Across the UK there are many wonderful programmes which use collections and sites to open up memories and conversations or focus on in-the-moment creative activity for people with dementia and those who care for them. Many are rightly known nationally and internationally within both the health and cultural sectors, including National Museum Liverpool’s House of MemoriesDulwich Picture Gallery’s Visual to Vocal programme and Tyne and Wear Archive and Museum’s Platinum Extra Care Programme. But one of the most inspiring things about being involved in this process is discovering more about work taking place across the country, across artforms and in organisations of all shapes and sizes.

So, I wanted to highlight a few of the innovative and quality museum programmes and projects I’ve come across so far. Beamish Museum Dementia Awareness week (includes Singing for the Brain sessions with Alzheimer Society groups, a ‘dementia cafe’ set up in a 1940s farmhouse, craft activities and garden party, including partnerships with the Alzheimer’s Society). Peer Support Cultural Partnership in Leeds with Leeds Museums and Galleries, the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds Library Service and Peer Support Services coming together to offer an inventive and imaginative form of therapy. RAF Museum Cosford’s wide-ranging dementia friendly programme, including The Horizon Dementia Drop-in Cafe.

Sensory Palaces at Historic Royal Palaces is developing a programme to engage with people affected by dementia and their carers by inspiring storytelling and a giving sense of wonder. ‘Arts and Minds’ at Plymouth Museum and Art Gallery, which draws on the evidence around how creative activity might slow down degeneration of the disease. This series of regular art workshops targets people living with early stages of dementia or recent diagnosis and not within the formal care system.

The cognitive functioning of the group is being monitored by an external organisation Memory Matters. All these examples demonstrate highly effective partnership working with health and social care providers and a friendly, social, personalised approach. I know that’s what we aim for in our work in this area.

We’ve been developing and running dementia programmes, resources and training for the past three years, in partnership with health and research sector colleagues, care settings and participants. From this, we know that people living with dementia need cognitive stimulation, along with opportunities to interact meaningfully with their physical and social environments on a regular basis.

As one project worker from a care setting recently observed of her team of carers as well as the residents: “They use the things made as a talking point to trigger conversations and memory. It gives them things to talk about with residents and it helps them bond – builds relationships. “Not seeing the person in a care context but in a social context, the staff saw the residents differently, in a new light.” Like many of these organisations, we too have been learning how to become dementia friendly.

Dementia friends (https://www.dementiafriends.org.uk/) is a great first step – it isn’t about bricks and mortar, it’s about the difference people can make.

It is why we’re training all our visitor facing staff and volunteers as dementia friends and we will be wearing our badges with pride. By understanding more about living with dementia, by taking small thoughtful measures to accommodate additional needs and considering how we welcome and engage people, all our visitors will benefit. In late spring 2015, the Alzheimer’s Society will publish its report on dementia friendly arts communities with advice and guidance on how to become more dementia friendly.

Museums matter – they are extraordinary and often immersive spaces with collections which encourage curiosity, creativity and learning. When all the symptoms indicate cognitive decline, how might we stimulate, imagination, encourage conversation and develop creative capacity? How might all the marvellous ‘stuff’ we in museums care for and display bring people with dementia and their families and carers together?

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