A new app uses images to trigger memories

Museum artifacts can be powerful drivers for stimulating conversation.

Classic Tinkertoy
Classic Tinkertoy

The human mind is an amazing thing.

Yes, even when it’s plagued by the neural plaques and tangles of dementia, the brain has the ability to tap deep into long-held memories.

But just what is it that jogs our memories?

Music has been shown to trigger recollections.

But guess what else works?

Images of everyday objects and historic events can also do the trick.

And now, thanks to a new dementia-awareness program made possible by the Minnesota Historical Society, older adults struggling with memory loss and their caregivers have a new, award-winning tool.

The My House of Memories app — originally developed by National Museums Liverpool in the U.K. — shows archival images from the 1920s–1980s to help people with dementia draw on their own memories to create personal connections with family, friends and caregivers.

Maren Levad, access manager for the Minnesota Historical Society, said the U.K. version of the app was first of its kind in the world.

“We redesigned the app for U.S. audiences using items from our collection that were curated by people living with dementia and their caregivers,” Levad said.

You might be wondering: Why exactly are museums getting involved in the dementia/caregiving arena?

Well, museums specialize in artifacts and stories, too, of course. And those objects and histories can be powerful drivers for stimulating memory and conversation.

Vintage toys, hair curlers, a rotary phone, a pristine 1950s kitchen, a Beatles Christmas record, a black and white photo of an old ride at the Minnesota State Fair, a Santa Bear from Dayton’s — they all might spark a memory or a story.

Carol Rogers, executive director for education and visitors at National Museums Liverpool, said museums can be fantastic resources for helping unlock memories, which can lead to improved communication between caregivers and people with dementia.

“Person-centered care is at the heart of our training and acknowledges that an individual’s personal history and memory are of huge importance,” Rogers said. “We’re excited to see how the U.S. version of the My House of Memories app will help Americans.”

When users download the free app, they can simply choose the U.S. version with images relevant to Americans, including inspirational objects.

Users can create themed sets of objects such as “sports,” “work and family life” and “music and entertainment.”
Sound effects and videos bring objects to life to provide a rich, multi-sensory experience, including a music-box function that can play music by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.

Helpful hints prompt users to remind them of objects’ names. There’s also a read-aloud option for people who prefer to listen.

If you want to take this kind of memory care to the next level, you can export a loved one’s favorite objects to create a memory tree, box or timeline to share with others. (To bolster the power of the app, the historical society is also offering free trainings and workshops for families — and professionals — later this month as part of its House of Memories program.)

To learn more about the My House of Memories groundbreaking new digital app — designed for, and with, people living with dementia and their caregivers — go to mnhs.org/houseofmemories.

The app is available in the iTunes and Google Play app stores.

Take a free training

The Minnesota Historical Society is hosting free trainings to help friend/family caregivers — and professional care staff — learn how to use museum resources to encourage memory sharing and help people live well with dementia. The workshops, held at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul, focuses on objects, photographs, ephemera and stories in the society’s collections. Caregivers will learn what types of memory activities and resources are available and how to use them to communicate with people living with dementia, including the free My House of Memories app. Workshops are free with registration.

Professional Caregiver Trainings: 9 a.m.–noon or 1–4 p.m. March 25

Friends & Family Caregiver Trainings: 10 a.m.–2 p.m. March 26, 27 or 28

Learn more at mnhs.org/houseofmemories.

Sarah Jackson is the editor of Minnesota Good Age.