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The Memory Café: Creating a museum program for people with dementia

Category: Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion
Four people sit around a table playing "Chinese checkers." Other tables of people are seen in the background.
Conner Prairie provides people with dementia a judgment-free social space and activities designed to trigger memories through its "memory café" programs. In this photo, the museum's CEO and president Norman Burns plays checkers with participants.

At Conner Prairie—a Smithsonian Affiliate living history museum in Fishers, Indiana—we recently debuted a program for people with Dementia and Alzheimer’s. In partnership with the Central Indiana Council on Aging (CICOA) and Dementia Friends Indiana, we’re hosting “Memory Cafés,” which give people living with dementia and their caregivers the opportunity to spend more time out and about in the community and to meet others living through the same experience.

The program is an extension of our diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion promise that “Conner Prairie is a place where the doors are always open to a diversity of voices and limitless experiences,” our aspiration that “Conner Prairie will be a national leader in reimagining museums and how people view and use them,” and our core values of being an organization with “a heart for the past, a head for the present, and an eye to the future.”

Our journey to becoming dementia-friendly started in July of 2018, when CICOA and Dementia Friends Indiana helped us train five staff members to be “Dementia Champions, who now lead trainings for our internal staff at Conner Prairie to be “Dementia Friends.” So far we have trained sixty people for this role.

Through this process, Conner Prairie has achieved certification and designation as a Dementia Friendly Museum by Dementia Friends USA, which is part of a global movement that is changing the way people think, act, and talk about dementia.

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As a part of our dementia-friendly programming, we created the Memory Café to be a judgment-free social environment for individuals with cognitive disorders and their caregivers. It is a safe place where they can come to relax and engage with Conner Prairie’s living and non-living collections in a program designed to help with what we refer to as memory reconnaissance.

Our goal is to involve as many of the senses as possible during these programs. Sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste are all triggers proven to help recall memories and emotions. That act of your brain searching for ‘lost’ memories is the idea of memory reconnaissance.

Over the past nine months, our program team has hosted five Memory Cafés at Conner Prairie that have served over 100 individuals. Some of the activities have included dipping beeswax candles, churning butter, and making cornbread over an open hearth. There have been themes surrounding holiday memories like Christmas toys and traditions, Valentine’s Day and music, and animals and agriculture.

For the Christmas-themed Memory Café, we encouraged staff and volunteers to bring in generational toys and games that café participants might recognize from childhood. For instance, I was able to bring in a baby carriage me and my oldest brother used between 1949 and 1961, and my wife’s childhood baby doll named Victoria. The thrill of seeing participants pick these items up, remember similar ones from their past, and begin to tell stories is an amazing experience that I will never forget. Staff who have worked on the programs have been similarly moved by their experiences:

“This program has given me such a drive and a passion for making Conner Prairie an inclusive and accessible museum. I look through everything with a new lens now.”

—Kelsey Van Voorst, Interpretation Manager for Conner Prairie

“It’s an opportunity to be able to be around others and not necessarily talk about dementia, but just to relax and enjoy yourself. It’s great for people with dementia because in that setting there are things they can touch, see, and smell, and that can bring back memories of different things.”

—Dustin Ziegler, director of community programs for CICOA

At one of our programs, Kelsey took the group out to our Animal Encounters Barn to meet some of our baby heritage lambs and goats. One man in the group had remained fairly silent during the morning and was not really engaging in activities or conversation. But, as Kelsey remembers, “Once he got into the barn, things changed drastically. He saw the animals, smelled the hay and manure, felt the wool, and he started telling us stories of how he and his brother grew up on their father’s farm. He recalled a memory of his brother breaking his arm as he tried to ‘ride’ the hay lift up to the loft. Seeing the smiles on the faces of the individuals that participate in our Memory Programming makes my job the best job in the world.”

We have also received a lot of positive feedback from the community and from caregivers, like the husband who drove his wife forty-five miles to Conner Prairie for our first Memory Café last October. After attending the first session where they churned butter, baked cornbread, and dipped candles; the husband said they had no intention of missing another one. “We loved it and want to come back. It’s a drive, but it’s worth it for her.”

Because of the success of our Memory Cafés, this May Conner Prairie presented an event called “Memory Day 2019.” This all-day event involved socializing, music, and hands-on activities in a dementia-friendly setting. Activities included musical performances by a swing band and presentations and panel discussions about the importance of music and memory. The event also highlighted many of our new community partners, with information tables for representatives from dementia-related community organizations

Our Memory Cafés have different themes and activities depending on the time of year or location of the café on the site. Themes for the remainder of this year include a summertime barbecue with outdoor games, a fall harvest event featuring apples, an old-fashioned Thanksgiving pitch-in, and a focus on Christmas and holiday traditions. More information is available here.

At Conner Prairie we believe in creating fun, memorable, and engaging learning experiences for all. Our Memory Cafés are an inclusive way that Conner Prairie can help restore or perhaps make new memories for people that need a welcoming and safe place to remember.

About Dementia Friends Indiana

The Dementia Friends Indiana initiative is part of the Dementia Friendly America campaign to make communities more informed, safe and respectful for those living with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia and to reduce the social isolation it can cause. Part of a global movement that began in 2012 in the United Kingdom, the U.S. campaign is led by the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (n4a), of which CICOA is a member. The focus of the campaign is to foster dementia friendly communities and register dementia friends nationwide. To learn more or to become a dementia friend, visit dementiafriendsindiana.org.

About CICOA Aging & In-Home Solutions

CICOA Aging & In-Home Solutions is a nonprofit organization providing the innovative answers, services and support you need to help you or a loved one remain at home in better health, with better care, at a lower cost. As a state-designated Area Agency on Aging serving Central Indiana, CICOA links people with information, support and services for older adults, people with disabilities and family caregivers, including care management, home health care, home-delivered and neighborhood meals, transportation, home accessibility modifications, respite care and caregiver assistance. To learn more, visit cicoa.org.

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