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Minnesota History Center's international partnership leads to app for people with dementia

Minnesotans explore the "My House of Memories" app at a professional caregiver training at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul on Monday, Sept. 24, 2018. The app is part of a museum-based program that helps people connect with those living with memory loss. The program, developed by National Museums Liverpool in United Kingdom, made its American debut in St. Paul on Monday. (Mike Levad / Twin Birch Studios)

ST. PAUL—Although the Minnesota Historical Society offers sensory-based tours of the James J. Hill House for people living with memory loss, a museum access specialist found herself wondering how museums can also serve those who stay home.

Put another way:

Maren Levad, that museum access specialist, wondered: "Is there an app for that?"

Turns out, there is: And this is how Minnesota and Liverpool, England, teamed up in St. Paul for Monday's launch of " House of Memories," a museum-based dementia awareness program that includes training workshops, resources — and, yes, an app that was first developed by National Museums Liverpool in the United Kingdom and has now been adapted for an American audience.

The free app, called "My House of Memories," is available now in iTunes and Google Play stores.

This cross-cultural partnership began in 2012.

"We were trying to figure out how we could serve people who weren't able to come to our museums," Levad said. "Technology was the obvious answer. I don't like to reinvent the wheel, so I thought we would take a look at what apps were already out there, to see if we could partner with someone."

At first glance, it was a challenge, Levad said: "The majority of the apps out there are about things like, 'Track your mom's eating habits,' or a health care reminder — they're really health and disease related, not connection related. But my intern, Elizabeth, went online and did some research and found 'My House of Memories.'"

It was a new app — in the midst of a debut across the pond.

"She sent it to me and said, 'This looks cool,'" Levad remembers. "And so we found the info and emailed them and said, 'Hey, can we partner with you?' I think they were a little overwhelmed, because they had just launched themselves, but that's where it all started."

Over in Liverpool, it all started when Carol Rogers, executive director of education and visitors at National Museums Liverpool, was trying to find a way to connect with her own mother during a difficult time.

"My journey with House of Memories started when my mum suffered a series of strokes," Rogers said on Monday as she stepped out of a training session for professionals at the Minnesota History Center. "As a daughter, with my siblings, we were looking after her in her own home, and unfortunately she lost the ability to communicate and, at that time, we didn't know that she had vascular dementia, that came later on, so we really struggled to connect with her."

Rogers found a way through her work: "Because of my background in museums, my understanding of how objects tell stories, I found myself using my museum skills more and more with my mum," Rogers said. "When (caregivers) were coming into her home setting, I'd put little labels on photographs to explain what the image was about, or if there was a piece of memorabilia, I wanted the (caregivers) to have the context for my mum's environment. That was really important to me, because that was her identity."

When their mother moved into a care home, it forced the family to think about the essence of her identity.

"We had that moment in time where all our mum's memories — her whole house of memories — needed to distill down into a box or two of memories that would move into a room with her," Rogers said. "And we just had that moment as a family where we wanted to make sure we got that right. ... It got me thinking, 'There's a role here for the museum.'"

Rogers wrote down her thoughts and ideas for her daughter, a physician who was in medical school at the time.

"She said, 'Mum, you've written this for the world you're working in, which is museums, and therefore, I can't really relate to it as a health professional. You need to write it in a way that I get it.'"

So Rogers edited out the museum-speak and wrote about why she thought museums had a role to play in the world of memory loss.

"I just wrote about memories," Rogers said. "That museums are looking after memories ... we are the custodians of the community memory. We're the caretakers, we conserve them, we research them. But why are we doing that? We're doing that so that people can find those cultural connections — and we want to tell those stories. And there's a massive role for museums to play in helping the health and care workforce access that resource."

On Monday, professional care staff attended a training workshop where they learned about the goal of the initiative.

"It's about the value of a person's history and life experience," Brian Hallett, a House of Memories facilitator, said to those gathered at the Minnesota History Center.

But how does the experience work, exactly? Although there will be training workshops held across the state, the app is available for use now: It features more than 100 interactive pages from the Minnesota Historical Society Collection, which can spark memories and conversations: A vintage Minnesota Vikings helmet; the wooden-style Tinker Toys; a Dayton's Santa Bear. Users can also take or download their own photos — a step that provided a powerful connection for Rogers' mother.

"When I showed Mum her wedding photo on the app," Rogers recalls, "she squeezed my hand."

The American version of the app — including objects, photos, music and video — was curated by people living with dementia and their caregivers, including African-Americans who selected items that connect to the black community. Because, as the Minnesota Historical Society stated in a press release: "African-Americans are two times more likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer's and other types of dementia than non-Hispanic whites."

Dorothea Harris, program manager of caregiver services at Volunteers of America, was on the team that developed the new version of the app.

"House of Memories is a fantastic idea and a wonderful contribution to African-American caregivers and family members with dementia," said Harris, "and a program that can be used over and over and over again."

The initiative complements other Minnesota Historical Society's memory loss programs, including sensory-based tours, memory cafes and a baking lab. (The Minnesota Historical Society is a member of the SPARK! Alliance, an organization of Minnesota and Wisconsin museums focused on serving the memory loss community.)

To find out more about the "House of Memory" training workshops, visit mnhs.org/houseofmemories.

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