How cultural experiences can improve health and wellbeing

Reflections from Practitioners: Working with older adults with dementia

In the coming weeks, we will be highlighting reflections for musuem professionals and artists who have been involved in the research and delivering the museum activities.

The first blog is from Jo, Assistant Outreach Officer at Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums and her experience at Castleside Inpatient Dementia Service.



As part of the Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums (TWAM) Outreach team I visited the Castleside (Inpatient dementia service) Ward a number of times with museum handling objects based around sport, to stimulate conversation and memories with the patients and staff. This was a few years ago, however the staff at Castleside kept in touch and I occasionally went back and did a few more museum sessions.

When Not So Grim Up North came along a few years later, we thought that Castleside would be a really good ward to start the research as the patients are monitored regularly and are in this ward to be assessed on their mental health problems arising from organic disorders such as dementia.

We approached the NHS about carrying out this research and got given the go ahead. We then booked in 2×6 week blocks of museum activities in the ward. Nuala and myself went along once a week. I brought along one of our themed object handling boxes and engaged with the patients while Nuala recorded and made notes about individual participants in the session. – observations such as – mood, social interaction, concentration etc… NHS staff also recorded these observations at set times before and after the sessions to try and evidence that the museum activity has helped patients.

Each week I took objects into the ward including –


Homelife objects…

Old telephone

Scrubbing brush

Cigarette packets


Old soaps


Childhood objects…

Skipping ropes


Tic tac toe

Tiddley winks

Tell me game

Basil brush (toy and book)

Womble (toy and book)

Pin ball game

Donald duck toy


Leisure and hobbies objects…

‘Tell me’ game


Football programmes

The Broons and Oor Wullie book

100 Geordie jokes book

Knitting patterns and wool

The Hoppings book

Trolley bus toy

Old newspapers


All of which can be seen in the images below.

I took each object around the participants in the room and let them hold, feel, smell etc…. The room was quite large and the people were spread out. Unfortunately most patients either responded to me, or the staff members – there wasn’t much group interaction with each other. Looking ahead next time I’d try and get participants around a table to hopefully generate more interaction.

I felt like the sessions went better depending on which staff were on duty that particular day. Some members of staff were great – getting involved, sharing, laughing, even skipping with the old skipping rope! Creating a great atmosphere in the ward. Other weeks there was hardly any staff around at all, but I guess that’s how the ward works.

As I ran the sessions I always made observations myself and filled in a diary at the end of the day.

Observations I took note of where things such as….

Participant 4 was withdrawn, only interacting with an object and myself briefly – he didn’t interact with anyone else during the session

Participant 3 was quite agitated at first (shouting), however, as time went on he completely engaged – talking about the objects and asking about what was happening next week. He told me he was looking forward to seeing me next week!

Participant 2 liked the old telephone and pretended to have a conversation on it – myself and nearby members of staff all laughed and joined in – it was a nice moment. Participant 2 also said that the old ceramic hot water bottle I brought along was a posh one!

Participant 3 really enjoyed the session. He didn’t want to leave to go to the toilet, as he was afraid he might miss something. I had to tell him I’d wait for him to come back before passing the next object around!

Participant 5 showed the group how to ‘play’ the washboard like a musical instrument

These are all just a few examples of what I observed in different sessions. Next we need to sit down and review the footage of the sessions, look at Nuala’s notes and my notes and conclude what impact the sessions had.