Historical Society launches new interactive aid for people with dementia

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A stroll down memory lane can help loved ones reconnect

Blacks are two times more likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia according to medical experts. As the U.S. population of those age 65 and older continues to grow, the number of Americans with Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia will grow as well. Every 65 seconds, someone age 65 and older develops it. By 2025, it is estimated nearly three in 10 people will have Alzheimer’s.

The Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) in September launched the U.S. version of the “House of Memories” — a dementia awareness program developed in the United Kingdom for people caring for people with dementia. “We are the first international partnership,” MNHS Museum Assess Specialist Maren Levad told the MSR. Levad has been with the Historical Society for 10 years, assisting people with cognitive disabilities and other special needs.

She said her office has been working on memory loss issues for over four years. “The first thing I train people to do is make a connection” with the person suffering from demetia, she advised. The new program includes a first-ever “My House of Memories” app with more than 100 interactive pages of MNHS collection ideas to help those living with dementia draw on memories to create personal connections with family, friends and caregivers.

The app also has a specially designed feature for Blacks with dementia. Levad said over the past couple of years, the MNHS has worked with community organizations such as the St. Paul African American Faith ACT Community and the Volunteers of America (VOA).

MNHS received a $205,000 grant last year from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to work on the new app, which culminated nearly a five-year search on how to better serve people suffering from memory loss, especially Blacks and other people of color.
“We spent four years planning this, talking with community members, and finding people like Dorothea [Harris, a VOA caregiver services program manager] … It is our job as a museum with our resources to have culturally-centered programs. This is not being done,” Levad said.

Dorothea Harris Charles Hallman/MSR News

Changing perceptions
Harris shared that her North Minneapolis office recently updated its name to Culturally Responsive Caregiver Support and Dementia Services to reflect those resources. “We changed our name because we have reached out to other populations [of color],” she told the MSR.
Her office’s main purpose in addition to caregiver support is education — the term “caregiving” is not often clearly understood among people of color, Harris explained.

“Caregiving is a mainstream term,” she added, noting her seven years of taking care of her elderly grandmother. “It was my role and responsibility. She always was there for me, always there for our family. That’s what families do for one another.” Family members suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia sometimes are stigmatized as well, especially Black people, Harris pointed out.

“There’s a lot of shame and blame. We don’t understand the in’s and out’s about the disease. We don’t want others in our family business.
“Most elders didn’t grow up seeing family members put away. No one wants to be away from their family or even out of the community.
“This is a disease that makes people feel like they contracted something or did something wrong, or it’s mental illness,” Harris said. “It’s none of those things. However, it comes with those unrealistic feelings.”

To help reduce that perceived isolation, Levad said app users “can add photos to the ‘My Memory section either by taking photos of family members or taking pictures of rooms in their house. The goal is to allow [users] to connect with their loved ones in their own homes and their own spaces where they are comfortable.

“MNHS held three professional caregiver workshops in September at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul and at the Mayo Clinic’s Charter House in Rochester,” added Levad. “Family caregiver workshops will be held in spring 2019.”

“I’m grateful for what the History Center has done with this app in regards to looking at our culture,” said Harris. “What they have done is make things relevant and culturally appropriate for us.”

But, Harris stressed it “is not a fix it” for Alzheimer’s and dementia. Alzheimer’s “is a progressive disease,” she said. “You don’t want people to be lonely inside or shut down. This [app] opens up a time for you and that person to be able to spend time together. It’s beautiful to see that person come alive and want to talk about things.”

The new House of Memories app is free and can be downloaded to tablets and smartphones from iTunes and Google Play. To find out more about the workshops, visit www.mnhs.org/houseofmemories.