For some the taste, for some the sound, for others the smell...

How to help those living with dementia through Open Air Museum activities.

Author: Márta Bokonics-Kramlik

Why did I come out to the kitchen..? Where did I put my glasses..? Oh, I can’t remember the word… We all know what it’s like when something slips our mind. Perhaps that’s why we have the tendency to easily gloss over such memory-related issues, even though we should pay attention to such minor signs. 

But what is dementia? Instead of signifying a specific disease, it’s a collective term that refers to a group of symptoms that appear due to disrupted brain functions that impede the facilities of short-term memory and recollection. Unfortunately, brain cell death is an irreversible process, yet if the condition is recognised in time, it can be impeded and stabilised.

This is precisely what the special Dementia Programme of the Open Air Museum intends to accomplish. Impaired short-term memory quickly appears in the case of those living with dementia; conversely, the treasured long-term memory still remains accessible.

That is why the Open Air Museum’s Dementia Programme focuses on recalling the participants’ youth and childhood. Dementia isn’t a natural part of aging, yet this disease is found at a higher rate amongst the elderly. The average age of those participating in the programme ranges from 70 to 90 years of age, which means their youth took place in the 1950s and ‘60s. 

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The furnishings of the museum’s Ásványráró residential building seeks to capture this era. The fittings, objects and even the clothes of the museum educators leading the programme all hark back to this period. The household articles and fashion goods available in the Kádár era basically unified the furnishings of rural and urban homes, allowing us to use the same devices for adults who grew up in rural or urban surroundings when recalling their childhoods. Every kitchen had the same sugar tin, everyone used Bonyhád enamel pots and all housewives had the same housecoats. As these are all objects from the recent past, they can be easily collected and I am practically convinced that the souvenirs of the age can still be found in many households. Encountering even one of these can help stimulate memory. 

The Open Air Museum is the first museum in Hungary that has set out to call society’s attention to dementia and the method that can lead to the wide-scale improvement of the life quality of those living with dementia.

What makes the Open Air Museum truly special is that these objects aren’t distanced from their own period and environment and are still used in their original surroundings. Therefore, for those who grew up in this era, they provide the sense of familiarity, which establishes a serene, well-known atmosphere, allowing participants to navigate through it with more confidence and routine than in a modern, foreign environment that isn’t relevant to them in terms of time.

The activities aren’t merely attended by the elderly people living with dementia, but their caretakers and next-of-kin are also an integral part of the experience. Usually, the escorts and the patients are one or two generations apart, therefore the programme also assists intergenerational communication. It’s highly important to involve escorts in the conversation and activities since this way they can experience what it’s like for someone to “be their old self again” and find themselves again.

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It’s great to see uncertain and reserved people open up, smile and regain their strength mentally, and often even physically. 

Every single occasion of the Dementia Programme is developed around a central theme. These can be tied to some ecclesiastic holiday (e.g. Easter, Advent), 1 May celebrations or occasions recalling pioneer camps, holidays or preparations for mother’s day celebrations, spring cleaning, winter pig slaughters – the range of possible themes is endless.

Designating a particular theme assists the museum educators running the programme in selecting the range of objects to supplement the fittings of the room. It’s important that there mustn’t be too many things apart from the basic fittings of the room. Focusing on one thing at a time can help us be more successful, yet it’s good if everything is readily available. The occasions are entirely flexible, so it’s no problem if participants deviate from the planned discussion, yet it helps if we can somehow relate to the newly suggested subject.

Although the museum has a wide-ranging 20th century collection, naturally, we aren’t in possession of all the objects typical of the period. In such cases, objects can be replaced with photographs. We have collected a range of photographs from free to use, online archives for the various themes, compiling photographs in an empty candy box, including the family portraits of families standing in front of the Christmas tree or pictures of children making snowmen, while the images of summer boating or beach trips are arranged in a typical imitation leather binder, allowing visitors to return to them time and time again.

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Participants are welcomed at all the Dementia Programme occasions as visiting guests. Actually, this isn’t far from the truth as the patients and their escorts are removed from their day-to-day existence while they take part in a special experience. We sit and discuss fond memories while sharing a glass of Bambi syrup and have a laugh when the Kossuth cigarettes are produced, sharing stories of how we had our first smoke in secret and there’s a smile on everyone’s face when we start singing the hits and songs that they might haven’t heard for decades, while the easy to read printed lyrics help us recall not only the chorus but also other parts of the verse. When receiving some advance information on the participants, we can provide an even more personalised experience that offers an even greater help in recalling positive experiences; this allows us to include elements and activities that are particularly related to the individual in question (for example, we once fed a donkey or made an arrangement of wild flowers).


The closer we can physically bring them to the past, the sharper their memories will become – this can be accomplished by allowing participants to freely access all parts of the activity. As the various memories are stored in different ways and dementia is manifested individually, when stimulating the memory, it’s important to involve all the senses during the programme, since for some the touch, for some the sight and for others, the taste, sound or smell can best help recall experiences or memories.

We’d like to share our unique programme with as many people as possible, so apart from occasions specifically targeting those living with dementia, we’re providing all those interested – whether they’re relatives or (elderly care, health or museum) professionals – with the opportunity of visiting us and getting acquainted with the methodologies of the Dementia Programme.


For more information on the Dementia Programme, please contact us via the email address.

Source of archived photos:

PublishedSkanzenBlog – The professional blog of the Hungarian Open Air Museum in Szentendre

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