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Minnesota Historical Society offers support to dementia caregivers

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Holly McDonnell and Linda Strand look at the House of Memories app
Holly McDonnell and Linda Strand look at the House of Memories app on Tuesday at a training for the app at the Minnesota History Center.
Peter Cox | MPR News

The Minnesota Historical Society is something like the state’s memory, preserving the state’s past. The society is also taking on the role of helping Minnesotans whose memories are waning because of dementia. The term dementia is a catchall for a range of problems with memory, thinking and social skills that are severe enough to affect daily living.

In a room right off the front entrance to the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul, a dozen people sat around tables Tuesday afternoon, using an iPad app called House of Memories. It’s designed for people with dementia.

Linda Strand and Holly McDonnell came to the center because they’re both volunteers with The Gathering, a caregiving group for people who have dementia.

After giving the app a test drive, Strand said it could provide some therapeutic stimulation.

"Our whole goal is to get them talking and remembering and as a group if they did this together, it would be such a source of conversation," she said.

Strand and McDonnell are here for a class on caring for others with dementia. They’ll learn about the Minnesota Historical Society's programming for people with dementia and the iPad app. 

A tablet with the House of Memories app at the Minnesota History Center.
A tablet with the House of Memories app sits on a table at the Minnesota History Center.
Peter Cox | MPR News

The app pulls up photos of objects in the Historical Society's collection dating from the 1920s to the 1980s. People can select items and pull up information about them, but the app is primarily designed to get people talking about familiar objects from their past.

"It's really designed for people who are at home," said Maren Levad, museum access specialist with the Minnesota Historical Society. The museum sees the app as a way to reach people beyond the museum.

"What people need more than a one-day-a-month tour is — what do I do in the 15 minutes where I'm waiting at the doctor with my mom who keeps asking me the same question over and over,” Levad said. “What do I do when my grandchild comes to visit and she doesn't know how to talk to my husband anymore and I need to make dinner? How do I help them engage? So, that's what the app is good for."

The Minnesota History Center hosts training sessions for caregivers every three months.

The House of Memories, which was originally developed for a museum in Liverpool, England, is just one effort by the Historical Society to help Minnesotans with dementia. The society’s work in this area began years ago, with tours and workshops specifically designed for visitors with cognitive decline.

But Levad said they also saw another need. There isn't much training for care providers. So, the society developed a curriculum to help caregivers and their charges find joy together.

"The training is, [first] half, person-centered — let's really be empathetic about what's happening with people with dementia — and the second half is using the different resources to connect with those people," Levad said.

That was a big draw for Mary Farquhar of Shoreview.

"I have a family member who is in early stages of mild cognitive impairment and he loves museums as do I, so when I heard about House of Memories I said, 'This I'm going to check out,'" she said.

As she walked through the Minnesota History Center near the end of the session, Farquhar said she learned a lot of techniques that will be useful going forward.

"Structuring an environment that brings the most out of them, but asking simple questions and you have a choice, and limiting the choices to two or three versus mentioning five things at once."