For people with dementia, remembering the past can provide a valuable link to the present. Alison Goulding reports. Photos by Andy Martin.
BEAMISH is famous for celebrating bygone years, but some of its most treasured work concerns people in the here and now.
For years, staff have been working with care homes and helping people with dementia enjoy some cheer and good fun.
Now, ambitious plans to build a new 1950s town at the museum have been revealed which will feed into this work.
A block of Aged Miners’ Homes within the town will provide ‘Homes for Memory’ – a dedicated centre where people living with dementia can visit with their families and friends.
Michelle Ball is outreach and access officer for Beamish and has worked there for four years.
Her work includes sessions with older visitors and specialist workshops for people with dementia.
She said: “We use our pit cottage to do the reminiscence sessions.
“For two hours we can shut the door and everything we talk about or see on outreach visits is right there in its context.
“Many older people love to chat during the reminisce sessions – memories come to the forefront. It can be more challenging and take more thought for people with dementia, but you do notice a difference as the weeks go by.”
It is thought that the addition of a 1950s town will tap into a new generation of memories.
Michelle explained: “The pit cottage is great but already some groups have said they were born in the 40s so it’s more like their nan’s house than theirs. “Having a 1950s house will be more relevant for some groups.
“There’ll also be more opportunity as it’ll be bigger and more accessible.
“Older people often find it easier to connect to the times in their life when they were making big decisions, like getting married and having children, so this will hopefully help with that.”
The museum has now launched an appeal for people of the North East to donate their unwanted 1950s treasures to make the new town into an authentic slice of history.
The 1950s town will be built over the next 10 years but for now, Michelle will continue to use the pit cottage for her sessions.
She said: “Often the thing people love the most is the open fire and the range. You can do so many things in that cottage, like having a cup of tea with the best china. We also do a lot of singing.
“We have a lovely volunteer who plays all the Tyneside songs and songs from the war. When the band hall is built we’d like to carry it on and do some tea dances in there.” One of the most important parts of Michelle’s job is to keep researching and learning about dementia, so her work is as useful as possible.
Last year she travelled to the open-air museum, Den Gamle By, in Denmark, to see its work with people who have dementia.
Michelle said: “They have a 1950s flat over a shop that they use.
“It was reassuring because they do things in a way very similar to us.
“Even though we didn’t speak the language we could see the same kind of characters and conversations in the group. When people walk in they give them a small job to do straight away, like setting the table.
“We’ve found in the pit cottage that after we’ve done some baking, some of the women like to wash up. When they’re in that non-clinical environment they remember they’re a mother of six and a good cook.
“It’s a chance to do things they haven’t done for ages.”
Working with people who have dementia is not always straightforward, but Michelle says she thrives on that.
She said: “At first I felt that if someone wasn’t saying anything they weren’t enjoying it, but I’ve since learned that even increased eye movement can show a person is more engaged.
“Sharing memories can be quite challenging for people with dementia. We don’t ask questions because that’s what they struggle with. Instead we encourage them to enjoy themselves and then sometimes memories do come to the forefront without putting any pressure on them to remember.
“So we might do some baking with a Bero book, which is fun and sociable and something they may well have done before.
“The focus is that they’re happy and having a good time.
“We’re now starting to look at more activities for men as we’ve had lots of comments that they hang back and don’t get involved as much – perhaps because a lot of the things we do in the cottage are domestic.
“We would like to have a look at using the potting sheds at the back of the cottage so everyone can leave with a sense of achievement. We thought we could do some gardening or make some bird boxes.
“No session is the same and it’s very informal.
“We encourage people to take pictures and make scrap books too so their family can see them when they visit.”
Beamish has an advisory panel of staff and managers from care homes, The Alzheimer’s Society, the NHS and other relevant groups.
Michelle said: “They’re really good to consult about the big things and the little things. Like the fact that it’s better to use mugs because they’re easier to hold. If we put together a new reminiscence box they’ll test it out for us and give us honest feedback.
Chris Colley, 53, volunteering officer for the Alzheimer’s Society in Chester-le-Street, is part of the panel.
She said: “What they’re trying to do is create a dementia-friendly community within Beamish.
“The work they do is absolutely fantastic. Alzheimer’s is a disease where you need to stimulate people’s minds and memories and Beamish fits perfectly because it’s full of memories.
“We work with the museum every year for Dementia Awareness Week and each year that event has grown and developed. This year we are hoping to be right in the heart of the museum.
“They’ve got such a lovely approach with people and they’re keen to learn from us as well. They want to know more and more about dementia and Michelle has visited our day centre with the reminiscence boxes.”
Michelle added: “We work closely with the NHS and Alzheimer’s Society for Dementia Awareness week and for the past two years we’ve had a big picnic events with local schools coming along to join in. There was games, singing and a skipping rope – it was really good fun.”
l The Great Donate has now started – if you would like to donate any 1950s homeware, take it to the Beamish Regional Resource Centre. Follow signs to Beamish Museum. At the mini roundabout in front of the main entrance turn left just before the large red metal steam hammer. Follow the road round, past Home Farm on the left and Beamish Golf Club on the left. The Regional Resource Centre is the next turning on the right.
l The museum is also looking for a set of Aged Miners’ Homes that are due to be demolished. Contact 370 4000.