My individual project this summer was to develop a series of events for visitors with Alzheimer’s and dementia, as well as their caregivers. Through the program, people with memory loss and their caregivers will learn about Virginia Beach and the station’s history, participate in sensory activities and crafts, and spark their own creativity and long-term memories. This project was a daunting yet exciting one, as I helped the museum meet the needs of an underserved population. But there was a lot to learn and take into consideration when developing programs for the memory-loss community. Meeting the audience’s needs and providing them an enjoyable experience are always at the heart of museum program design, but they were especially important to keep in mind when creating programs for people living with Alzheimer’s and dementia.
The first challenge in planning the program was getting familiar with the best ways through which to engage people with Alzheimer’s and dementia. There’s been a boom in museums—particularly art museums—offering activities for this community, so luckily there was a lot of research about what works best to offer intellectual and social stimulation. It turns out that a history museum was the perfect type of institution to contribute recreational events for this community, because their objects and focus on the past can spark the long-term memory retention of people with memory-loss diseases. We supplemented the information we already present through exhibits and presentations with hands-on materials and sensory activities. So the major requirement for successful events was making it active: incorporating artifacts that could be handled, period-appropriate music and visuals, and having questions that encouraged conversation.
The other major challenge was understanding the medical and social needs of people living with memory loss, and adapting each program to meet those needs. There are different stages and forms of memory loss under the umbrellas of Alzheimer’s and dementia, and our program had to learn to cope with a range of symptoms and severity. There was a lot to learn in this regard, and it affected how I planned the programs. Basically, it meant that I couldn’t plan too much. Each has a general structure, focus, and activity, but they are also fluid and adaptable in order to follow the path of what strikes a chord with the visitors.
Developing these programs was an extraordinary experience. It gave me the chance to attract a different type of audience that wouldn’t normally visit because the typical museum activities don’t meet their needs. I was also able to work on the development and marketing sides of the program. As a historian, these are fields I haven’t worked in often, so it was great to get the experience in these crucial aspects of museum programming. The marketing was especially fun, since it allowed me to be creative and help design visuals. Finally, my work on the Alzheimer’s and dementia programs taught me how to make events flexible and adaptable, inasmuch as one can plan beforehand for any eventuality.
I am optimistic that our series of memory-loss events provide creative explorations and social connections for people living with Alzheimer’s and dementia, as well as their caregivers. I put a lot of work into learning about the memory-loss community and the best ways to meet their needs. Through our programs, we hope guests feel inspired to remember their own stories, think about their pasts in new ways, and spark conversations with their loved ones.