Steel Museum Uses Artifacts to Stimulate Dementia Patients

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — For most visitors, wandering through the Youngstown Historical Center of Industry & Labor is nothing extraordinary. You wander the halls, perhaps led by a docent, and examine some of the artifacts from the industrial history of the Mahoning Valley. Maybe even learn a thing or two.

But that format doesn’t work well for everyone, says museum director Marcelle Wilson. After attending a conference last year that focused on making art available to people with disabilities, she realized that with a few adaptations the Steel Museum, as it’s more commonly known, could reach new audiences.

Now, with help from the gerontology department at Youngstown State University, the museum is launching a program aimed at reaching those with Alzheimer’s, other forms of dementia and memory impairments.

The program, “Sparking Memories,” consists of three parts: a tour, a memory café and an outreach program. Each segment has been designed with aging visitors, specifically those with memory loss, in mind.

Tours designed for those in assisted living centers are available on Tuesdays, a day the museum is usually closed. By having a controlled environment, Wilson explains, visitors can better relax and enjoy the exhibits without having to worry about unfamiliar crowds and noise.

Where Sparking Memories differs from the standard tour lies in its presentation. The goal isn’t necessarily to provide education but to begin conversations between caregivers and those with dementia. This is done through asking open-ended questions rather than explaining the items in an exhibit. And rather than having a docent lead a group through the museum on a set schedule, the Sparking Memories visitors lead the tour guide.

“If they’re interested in one thing for 30 minutes, that’s what we discuss. That’s what is important to them,” says Amy Plant, an adjunct professor at YSU who worked with Wilson to create the program. “The goal is to provide some education. But we really want to tap into their memories.”

To prepare for Sparking Memories, all staff at the museum underwent training to learn best practices for communicating with visitors who have dementia, how to work with restive behaviors and how to tailor each tour to the visitor, bringing up items or displays that might have personal relevance.

“Most of our training came down to communication. Not only what terminology to use, but things as simple as doing their nametags,” Plant says. “Do you write them or do you let [the visitors] do it? Where do you hang their coats? If someone wanders off from the group, how do you deal with that and make them comfortable?”

Adds Wilson, “If someone’s having a bad day, we understand that it’s probably the disease influencing that. … If they’re not enjoying the tour, maybe we can bring them an old magazine and talk about what they see.”

Staff at the museum, which includes students at Youngstown State, are also learning about cultural events from several eras of the Valley’s history to better interact with the visitors.

In addition to the special tour, the history center has added the memory café, designed to invoke bygone restaurants and diners. Here, visitors can socialize with museum staff, family or caregivers in a familiar environment. In many cases, Plant says, those with memory loss miss out on socialization as their condition worsens and they become less and less comfortable with being in public.

“It’s a safe spot where they can spend time and do meaningful activities in a social setting. They don’t have to worry about having a bad day,” she says. “The staff is trained and they understand. We’ve picked activities that are inclusive to their interests that can evoke memories.”

The outreach program, Museum in Suitcase, will travel to nursing homes in the area. In each suitcase is a miniature exhibit with items that residents are more than welcome to touch – a departure from normal exhibits.

“We’re all tactile and visually oriented, whether we have Alzheimer’s or not,” says Helen Paes, community development coordinator for the Alzheimer’s Association Greater East Ohio Area chapter. “It just adds elements to the experience when they go back and remember. What is the feel of that wool jacket that you wore in the ’50s? It’s warm. It’s nubby. It all adds to the whole experience and the idea that we’re dealing with a whole person.”

For items that would normally be too large or heavy to transport – or too dangerous, in the case of some sharp steel-mill tools – Plant and Wilson enlisted the help of YSU’s Launch Lab to re-create them.

At a display in the Steel Museum, Wilson picks up a large, silver-colored wrench. It’s light – the real wrench, Wilson says, takes a couple of people to move – and is made of cardboard rather than steel and covered in a vinyl wrap to make it easier to clean. Should it be broken while on the road, a replacement can be made easily.

Having something to interact with is a major component of the program, Plant says. For people with dementia, senses also tend to fade. By bringing in tools that deal with as many senses as possible, it adds another layer and more chances to spur memories.

“Dementia is isolating. You don’t get touched as much and you don’t experience things in the same way,” she says. “What makes our tour different is that we aren’t looking at art, which is subjective and can be intimidating if you don’t have experience. We’re tapping into everyday experiences.”

By bringing those memories to the surface, the Sparking Memories programs can have a positive effect on those with dementia, Alzheimer’s and other memory disorders. It can keep them active and gets them into the community. If they have a string of days where their behavior is negatively affected by their condition, bringing them to the museum could help ease them into a place of comfort.

“It’s not going to be long-term improvement, but anything that makes anyone’s life better is something we find worthwhile,” Wilson says.

There’s also a benefit for caregivers, be they family or nurses, she adds. Caring for someone with memory loss takes its toll and results in frustration. With Sparking Memories, the recall of better times reinforces the idea that they are caring for a person with a disease, not always the disease itself.

“It brings out their personhood. They’re a person who’s still whole. They still have things you can tap into and know who they are,” Plant says. “For me, one of the greatest things is to see a family come in, go on a tour and say, ‘I never knew that about my mom.’ It could be the most mundane thing, but having the interpersonal connection is important.”

As the Mahoning Valley’s older population continues to rise – by 2030, it’s projected that more than a third of Mahoning County’s population will be 60 and older, up from 24.3% in 2010 – these kinds of programs will play an important role in maintaining the quality of life.

“It’s good social interaction for them to come to a place like this where they can remember and have good feelings,” Paes says. “Because more people are being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, we need to find ways to not only do the medical things but also the social things and the emotional support. And their caregivers need this support, too.”

From a historian’s perspective, passing stories from one generation to the next is important. While there are no immediate plans to incorporate recording sessions at the museum, giving older adults a place to interact with children, whether relatives or not, and pass on stories can help preserve a bygone era of the Valley’s history.

“Connecting the generations is more and more important. Not losing that oral history is one of the great things Marcelle [Wilson] does,” Plant says. “While they have cognitive disorders, we can’t forget who they are and that they’re people who lived full, rich lives that we can tap into.”

Pictured: Amy Plant (left), an adjunct professor at YSU, helped museum director Marcelle Wilson create the “Sparking Memories” program.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.