July 30 2014 12:00 AM

Historical Center seeks volunteers for program helping Alzheimer’s patients

Alzheimer’s disease robs individuals of their short-term memory but leaves much of their older memories intact. Through its new Elder Heart program, the Michigan Historical Center is trying to tap into those memories. Through the program, the MSU Museum and the Broad Art Museum have opened up their collections and exhibits to Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers, creating an expressive outlet and forum for dialogue.

“We are always looking for new audiences to serve and new ways to bring collection to different groups and civicminded people,” Christiana Hanson, public program coordinator, said. “Reaching out to an audience that doesn’t have a lot of social programs was very interesting to us.”

The program started in art museums, but the Historical Center has modified it to fit its resources and Michigan history.

“Art is interpretive, (but) with history, people can connect it to something that happened in their life,” Hanson said. “How they used a certain object or where they were when a certain event happened is the type of connections that are made.”

The program gives people with Stage 1 and 2 Alzheimer’s — as well as other types of dementia — a chance to interact socially and exercise their observation, association and imagination skills, which tend to remain after technical and factual knowledge have been lost. The program emphasizes dialogue; caregivers play a key role as discussion participants, often learning skills to help continue discussions at home.

The initiative is operated as a byrequest program for groups from home or care organizations. The center has already gone through a few months of testing the program.

“We are in growth stage and need to recruit more volunteers to offer more programs,” Hanson said. What is also special about the program is the participation of volunteers. The center offers training to anybody interested in learning about working with people affected by memory loss.

No history knowledge or special skills are needed, but volunteers should be empathetic and good listeners.

“We look for people who are friendly, good at small talk and like getting to meet new people,” Hanson said. “It’s rewarding, but you must be patient.”

A full day of training will provide basic background information on dementia, conversation techniques and tour logistics. Volunteer docents will engage in open-ended conversation with Alzheimer’s patients in the early and middle stages of the disease by focusing in depth on exhibit displays and artifacts.

Hanson says that being able to see the participants make connections to their earlier life and relate to others about it is extremely rewarding.

“You hear some very touching stories, some are sadder than others, while some are joyful” Hanson said. “The biggest impact is the amazing personal connections you make with the people on the tour.”

Hanson is looking to recruit at least nine volunteers to operate the program at MHC. If you’re interested in volunteering or learning more about the program, contact Hanson at (517) 241-6852 or hansonc@ michigan.gov.